Homeowner Tops Trump In Court A Judge Ruled The Crda Has No Eminent Domain To Give Vera Coking's A.c. Property To The Developer.

Posted: July 21, 1998

ATLANTIC CITY — A judge yesterday threw out a highly criticized plan by the state to seize elderly widow Vera Coking's home and two nearby small businesses so the land could be used by casino mogul Donald Trump.

Superior Court Judge Richard Williams said the attempt by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority to take the properties for a new parking lot and a public park at Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino was flawed because it did not guarantee that the company would not later use the land simply to expand the business.

Williams ruled that Trump, not the public, stood to benefit from the proposed seizures and that the deal was ``analogous to giving Trump a blank check with respect to future development on the property for casino-hotel purposes.''

The ruling - the first serious setback to the use of eminent-domain proceedings for casino projects in Atlantic City - was hailed by one property-rights advocate as a landmark victory for property owners across the country facing similar condemnation efforts.

But Atlantic City Mayor James Whelan, who sits on the CRDA board, said that the ruling amounted to ``bad public policy'' and that if not overturned on appeal, it would virtually end the city's efforts at redevelopment.

While a defeat for Trump and the CRDA, which has sought since 1994 to condemn the three small properties to make room for a limousine waiting area in addition to the parking lot and park, the decision marked a sizable victory for Coking, who is about 70 years old and has lived on the property for nearly four decades.

``Now, I believe in the system,'' said Coking, who has positioned herself as a commoner battling a billionaire bully in a town where casinos are king.

``Just because the man has money doesn't mean he can push people around,'' she said of Trump.

Nicholas Ribis, chief executive officer of Trump Hotels & Casino Resort Inc., declined to give Williams' ruling much significance.

``It's not a blow to the Trump organization,'' Ribis told the Associated Press. ``Judge Williams has ruled against us in every case we've had before him. It's no surprise.''

Coking's attorney, Glenn A. Zeitz, meanwhile, reveled in victory.

``There are three women he is going to remember: Ivana, Marla and Vera,'' Zeitz said of Trump, referring to the high-profile developer's first and second wives, respectively, and to Coking.

The dispute gained national notoriety last year when Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau drew a week's worth of strips lampooning Trump, who, in turn, dismissed Trudeau as a ``third-rate talent.''

While Trump figured prominently in the case, the central issue was whether the government can invoke its power of eminent domain to take private land and give it to another private entity. Eminent domain has been used for years by governments to build roads and schools.

The lawyers for Coking, pawn-shop owner Josef Banin, and restaurateurs Clare and Vincent Sabatini argued that the CRDA wanted to take private parcels at below-market value and turn them over to Trump's company for its private gain without any legitimate public purpose and that that would violate their clients' constitutional rights.

The lawyers also contended that Trump would eventually use the land for additional casino space. Trump stated otherwise.

``This judge has sent a message to all government bodies and all property owners that property rights and constitutional rights will be protected and guaranteed,'' said Dana Berliner, staff attorney for the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit Washington law firm that helps individuals fighting property battles and that signed on as co-counsel for Coking.

Whelan, however, said that the constitutional issues raised were phony and that Coking and the other holdouts simply wanted as much money as they could get.

``They choose to use the system, and that's OK,'' he said, ``but let's not wrap ourselves in any holier-than-thou causes when they aren't there.

``You're going to see every person who owns property in a strategic location demanding money that might make a developer not want to come to the city.''

CRDA officials did not return repeated phone calls, but Whelan said the authority's lawyers were reviewing the decision to determine whether to appeal.

Coking has become a living legend in Atlantic City, where residents eager for a better life invited casinos 20 years ago, only to see homes and businesses obliterated by the ever-expanding industry.

Originally from the Fox Chase section of Philadelphia, Coking moved to the white, three-story building on South Columbia Place in 1961. She ran it as a boardinghouse, with 30 rooms, until 1978, the year the first casino opened along the Boardwalk.

Since then, the structure has been nearly as famous as the glitzy high-rises that dominate the Shore community's skyline. In the late 1970s, Penthouse tycoon Bob Guccione, eager to get in on the casino action, offered Coking $1 million for her lot. She refused. Exasperated, Guccione tried to build his facility around the house, but his project went broke before he could finish, leaving a steel frame looming over Coking's place for more than a decade.

Then Trump came along. In 1994, he urged the CRDA to begin condemnation actions against Coking, Banin and the Sabatinis, whose properties occupy a block bordered by Columbia Place, Pacific Avenue, Missouri Avenue and the Boardwalk.

The CRDA offered Coking about $250,000. Once again, she balked, saying her property was worth more than $1 million. Banin and the Sabatinis joined her and began the legal fight that, for now, has ended in their favor.

The Sabatinis, who have run their brown-brick mom-and-pop Italian eatery on Pacific Avenue for 33 years, were thrilled by the court victory.

``It's not fair to take one business away and give it to another,'' Vincent Sabatini said. ``This is great.''

Banin, a Russian immigrant whose pawn shop is adjacent to the Sabatinis' establishment and advertises ``We buy gold,'' was not in court yesterday. His brother, Peter, said Banin simply wants the case to end here so he can return to a normal life.

Interestingly, while the standoff was playing out in court, the Trump Plaza expansion proceeded and has been finished. A landscaped green area was built around the three buildings.

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