Let’s Make a Deal: Ocean County Set to Acquire Campground Site for $5.9M

by: Michael Realbuto
24 Jul 2023

Many of our blog posts focus on the run-of-the-mill condemnation case, that is, when pre-litigation negotiations fail, and the government legally “takes” private property for public use in exchange for “just compensation.” It’s about time we shed some light on an alternative case where the condemning agency avoids exercising its eminent domain power by entering into an agreement with a willing seller for a fair purchase price prior to litigation.

In early July 2023, Ocean County, New Jersey is finalizing a purchase of Cedar Creek Campground, a 27-acre privately-owned campground site off Route 9 in Bayville for $5.9 million. Cedar Creek is a popular destination for families and features camping, kayaking, hiking in the pines, plus a swimming pool. It is unique in its proximity to both Barnegat Bay and the Pine Barrens. For Ocean County residents, its importance comes due to its location beside the Barnegat Branch Trail, which has been preserved up and down the corridor adjacent to an abandoned train line. The County is purchasing the property through the county’s Natural Lands Trust, which is funded by a county-wide open space tax. Because the funds are earmarked for land conservation only, the 27-acre campground will permanently close at the end of the current season. While the County will not continue to run the camp as an attraction, officials have made it clear that the property will be preserved in accordance with its “Natural Lands plan.” Regarding the property acquisition, County Administrator Michael J. Fiure stated as follows: “As of right now, the main priority is that this will be consistent with our Natural Lands plan, which could allow some recreation…But really, the main thing is that we have the Barnegat Branch Trail that runs through here, and there are pieces next door that we just acquired on all sides. Everything will eventually flow together.” Fiure reiterated that the campground was acquired only after extensive negotiations and the property owner signaled a willingness to sell.

Had the owners of the Cedar Creek Campground rejected the County’s offer(s) and signaled an end to negotiations, the County could have likely used its eminent domain power to take title to the property for land preservation purposes and then litigated the “just compensation” owed to the owners. However, this story demonstrates the ability of a condemning authority to negotiate a fair price for a piece of property that it seeks or needs without resorting to eminent domain. It is unclear to the author whether eminent domain was ever contemplated by Ocean County to acquire the Cedar Creek Campground.

Remember, the Eminent Domain Act in New Jersey creates a four-stage condemnation process: (1) an attempt to resolve the acquisition of the subject property without litigation through bona fide negotiations between the condemnor and the property owner; (2) determination of the authority and due exercise of the power of eminent domain by the condemnor via final judgment of the Court (appealable as of right); (3) non-binding determination of the issue of just compensation by condemnation commissioners appointed by the Court; (4) trial in the Law Division relating to the issue of just compensation. Notably, one of the principal purposes of the Eminent Domain Act is to encourage the acquisition of properties during the initial bona fide negotiation phase in order to avoid the expense and time of litigation.

For over 55 years, McKirdy, Riskin, Olson & DellaPelle, P.C. has concentrated its practice in this special area of the law and has earned a reputation for persistently defending its clients’ property rights. Our firm has successfully handled a broad range of eminent domain cases involving almost every type of property, including commercial buildings, industrial properties, development land, single and multi-family residential properties, hotels/casinos, oil/ gas pipelines, water rights and beachfront property, airports, farmland, and many more. If you are confronted with the threat of eminent domain, please feel free to contact us for a free consultation.