The Magazine

This Land Is Whose Land?

In which Piscataway seizes the Halper family farm.

Sep 11, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 48 • By MATT LABASH
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This sordid business had all sorts of Run yonesque accents, such as D'Amiano telling Mark that he'd "really be f--ed" if he didn't pay up, perhaps by another co-conspirator burying him "20 miles beneath the Pacific Ocean." So far, that's the stuff of everyday real estate transactions in New Jersey. But the case got extra weird when D'Amiano arranged a meeting between Halper and then-governor McGreevey, in which McGreevey was supposed to drop the code word "Machiavelli" if in fact officials were working on the Halpers' behalf. McGreevey did mention the name in their conversation, later claiming it was just a "literary allusion."

McGreevey was never charged with wrongdoing, and the scandal was overshadowed by his announcement that he'd had an affair with a man other than his wife. Likewise, local officials were not charged, though some had had dealings with D'Amiano. The Republican party still made hay in the 2004 elections with signs posted all over town saying "Bribery, Corruption, Indictment. Had Enough???" Though Democrats swept the township's four open seats, their feelings were hurt, and they filed a libel suit against Republicans. The ACLU jumped into the fray--on the Republicans' side.

To this day, Piscataway officials express befuddlement that the Halpers never entered the Farmland Preservation Program, saying it proves they had no intention of farming the land, but rather wanted to sell it. But the Halpers were still expressing interest in joining the program as late as 2004, and say good-faith negotiations seemed to stall after the extortion attempt. These things tend to happen when someone who represents himself as negotiating on behalf of "the buyers" threatens to bury the sellers under the Pacific Ocean.

As I drive up onto the Halper property one day before Clements's "Eminent Domain Woodstock" and two days before they are supposed to be evicted by the township, what greets me is not exactly a Rebecca-of-Sunnybrook-Farm tableau. The Halpers don't intend to vacate--they plan on being forcibly removed, partly out of stubbornness and principle, partly to help Clements achieve his Rosa Parks moment. But they are trying to spirit away as many of their possessions as they can, from rusty discarded field implements to the collaps ible walls of warehouses. Whatever is left behind will be no longer theirs, from their furniture to Larry's crops.

I walk up to the modest stone-and-siding farmhouse, where the only remaining animals, 15 or so Rhode Island Red chickens and a feral cat with her litter, are battling for supreme control of the porch. I shake Larry's dirt-caked hand, which he first wipes on a garage-sale shirt, and ask him how he's doing. He permits a pained smile. "Uhhh, I'm a little busy right now, I'm homeless," he says. I ask him who he holds responsible for this. "The American public," he says without emotion. "They watch the stupid blue light at night instead of taking care of their government. They leave it to these bums."

Now heating up, he calls all the politicians and judges he's crossed swords with "scumbags." "At the same time that they're stealing my farm for 'open space,' they're developing five other farms or nurseries in town. . . . They're nothing more than whores. Their parents were whores. Their grandparents were whores. Their kids are probably going to be whores." Larry's not taking it well.

Clara stands by him, a capacious woman who wears a surf T-shirt and flip-flops. She laughs nervously and often, always mindful to ask if you want something to drink, even though her kitchen is such a wreck, what with the move, that she's lucky if she can find the refrigerator. Larry says the township was supposed to pay his moving expenses, but hasn't given him a nickel. They're parking their belongings on a neighbor's lot for the time being. He has nowhere to move to, since it's pretty hard to find the equivalent 75-acre farm just lying around. And even if he could find one, how would he buy it?

Larry and Clara have four children, ages 8 to 16. The youngest, Cassie, sits in their living room, littered with boxes and household debris. Her pink Minnie Mouse suitcase is already packed, as she sits at the computer, tapping out something titled "My Story" in rainbow lettering. In part, it reads:

I am here to tell you about my miserable and sometimes happy life. This all started when I was born. What started, you asked. Condemnation! Because of one person, named Brian Wahler. . . . The first year I was born, I couldn't go on any vacations because my parents were fighting a war waged against us. My house was always filled with papers and barely had anytime for fun. It was always work, work, work.

Zac, the Halpers' 16-year-old son, is working with his dad today, as he often does--up to five hours a day after school. But now, he's doing so in a blind fury, operating tractors and carrying the family piano out on a front-end loader. His toil kicks up and cakes him with so much grime that he looks like James Dean after the oil gusher blew in Giant. The Halpers, both Jewish, have sent their two middle daughters off to stay with a relative in Israel. It perhaps says something about the state of affairs here at home that they feel more secure with their daughters in range of Hezbollah's Katyusha rockets than in the line of fire in Piscataway.

The city condemned the Halper farm in 2004 and gave the family $4.3 million, of which Halper won't touch his share. "I don't want their money," he says. "I want my farm back." Split twelve ways after taxes, it doesn't go very far; plus, his family, he estimates, has run up close to a million dollars in legal fees over the years. At this moment, Larry and Clara alone have four sets of lawyers handling everything from compensation to environmental issues to conflict-of-interest appeals.

While the $4.3 million offer resulted from the city's own assessment of the property, the Halpers say their land is worth exponentially more, and more still considering that they don't want to sell. But assuming they did, a developable acre in Piscataway, they say, could hold as many as three houses, making a million per acre not out of the question. With 75 acres, do the math.

A jury has found the city's math skills lacking, and said the Halpers were due $18 million. A judge has ordered the local government to pay an additional $8 million, which is in escrow and untouchable by the Halpers, since Piscataway is still appealing. The township's attorney actually had the nerve to argue that recent real estate appreciation shouldn't be a factor since Piscataway's condemnation of the Halper farm has lessened its value.

Mayor Wahler has accused the Halpers of running not a farm, but a "solid waste transfer station," suggesting environmental problems might be found. But the local papers have scoffed at the notion. The Bergen County Record reports that health officials have found no evidence of illegal dumping, and when the Middlesex County Health Department issued a $1,500 fine relating to the mulch operation, the state Department of Environmental Protection rescinded it. The Halpers regularly use all kinds of vegetative waste products to help make Mark's mulch and Larry's organic topsoil.

Larry grows thousands of ornamental trees, but no longer farms many conventional crops like corn because he says he always figured he might not be around to harvest them. He says the township has destroyed his business, such as the pick-your-own-pumpkin patch he had going, by constantly crowing that the Halpers no longer own the farm. The condemnation has turned him into a literal dirt-farmer, providing topsoil to nurseries and such, when not supplementing his family's income by pulling odd jobs, like filling swimming pools from a huge water truck.

You can nearly feel the grab-your-ankles moment coming for the Halpers, when the city's public information officer, Anne Gordon, explains on the phone that, rest assured, the Halpers will be "fairly compensated" and "nobody's trying to cheat them out of any money at all." (Mayor Brian Wahler could not be reached for an interview.)

It's been the township's position that the reason for taking the Halpers' property was that the family was going to sell to developers. As proof, the township has publicized two unsolicited offers the Halpers received of up to $13.8 million almost ten years ago. So where's the "fair market value" in offering now to pay the Halpers less than one-third of that? Gordon says the developers were willing to pay that for land they could build on, which the township "probably never would have allowed," so the township's assessment was a "fair market value per acre at that time."

As soon as Gordon finishes assuring me the township has no intention of cheating the Halpers, she tells me exactly how the township will likely cheat the Halpers. "There's going to be a tremendous chemical clean-up of that property," she says, adding that any clean-up costs will "unfortunately come off the top of their money." Gordon's never been on the property, nor does she know of any "definitive test" that's been done that would bear out her charges, but she speculates wildly. "Oil drums may be buried there. I don't have any evidence of that, but there may be people who do."

Just as an exercise--God forbid we jump to conclusions--I ask her to give me a rough guesstimate of how pricey this could get for the Halpers. Gordon grows coy. Of the tests that have already been run, she says, "I don't know what they show," therefore "I don't want to estimate, but somebody--and I don't know if it's accurate at all--said it could be $3 million. There's a feeling that there's been so much property damage on there we don't know about. Listen, I hope there's not."

As Clements says, "It's like if I steal a used car from you, then charge you for the repairs on the car. It's ridiculous." Keep in mind that the township condemned the Halper property not because of "blight"--a common reason offered for seizing property by eminent domain--but to preserve "open space," that is, make a park.

In other words, without officially claiming anything is wrong with the property, the city is helping itself to the product of three generations of Halper family labor--sub-freezing middle-of-the-night cow milkings when it was a dairy farm, year after vacationless year for Larry and Clara. The city vows that it's not selling their land off to developers, though literally every person I speak to in Piscataway doubts this, including those who don't support the Halpers. But so what if Piscataway doesn't resell the land? That means they're taking the Halper farm purely for aesthetic reasons--because it might look sorta pretty. Either way, they're taking it.

At the Halper farm that night, Clements catches up with us, fretting all the while about concert logistics, from finding generators to making sure Trucker Mike has made the trip from Texas since his flatbed is serving as the stage. After a half-hearted stab at helping the Halpers pack, we adjourn, along with Clements's producer/cameraman Rick Dowlearn, to a nearby restaurant for a late dinner. Larry passes. When I ask if we can get him anything, he says, "Yeah, a new farm."

At dinner, I mention to Clements that for Woodstock weekend, there don't seem be any campers present. Is that a bad sign? "I'm keeping my expectations low," he says. I ask him how many RSVPs there've been. "Not many," he says. "Like a hundred?" I ask. "Six," he says. I tell him I admire his honesty. "That's part of objectivism," he says.

It's not that he didn't try. Clements always tries hard. Sometimes, it feels like he's screaming into the void, trying to get people to care about eminent domain abuse after the Kelo decision, which he calls "a tragedy, the worst thing since Dred Scott. I need to inspire people to fight back against oppressive government. People regain their freedom when they lose their fear. But people are chicken."

For this event, he had a spreadsheet of constituencies to hit up for support. He skipped the Libertarians. "They suck, they never show up." He tried to interest RV owners, who told him "not enough notice." Then he targeted the Civil War reenactors. "They said not enough notice. . . . Bunch of fairies. They're more interested in playing dress-up." He even called a flash mob. "They said not enough notice. You're a flash mob! C'mon! I hate that. I mean, granted, I am a last-minute planner. I thought about calling the Hell's Angels, then I thought better of it."

No matter, says Clements, feigning optimism. He's hired two bands, a classic rock cover band named Glass Sun and Hello Nurse, who'll bring the modern sounds that the kids like. "All told, what do you think we'll have, about ten of us?" I ask. "Probably," says Clements. "Don't forget the band's girlfriends," Dowlearn reminds. Says Clements, "If there's nobody there but us and the ponies, they're still playing."

The next day, we fill a tiny portion of a former horse pasture, all 30 of us, including the band's girlfriends. Clara points out other fields in the distance, which she says were once adorned with beautiful mums and pumpkins. Schools used to brings kids there on field trips, and in off-seasons, the locals might lease a field to have religious tent-meetings. Now, the farmland mostly looks like weed-strewn moguls on a dirt-bike track. Clements has gone the extra mile, buying Dansk butter cookies and sourdough pretzels for concertgoers, as well as folding lawn chairs. Across the way, townspeople are buying their kids pony rides at Larry's cousin's stable for the last time. Tomorrow, it closes for good.

The concert is a low-energy affair. Glass Sun, who can cover everything from the Beatles' "I Am the Walrus" to Jethro Tull's "Locomotive Breath," believe in the need to stop eminent domain abuse almost as much as they believe in the 15-minute guitar solo. "Talk amongst yourselves over how you're gonna save the country," the lead singer says in between songs. Many of the rest of the audience are fellow eminent domain victims from around New Jersey, a place notorious for takings.

The Castle Coalition watchdog group has documented the most absurd eminent domain cases in the Garden State. In Carteret, the city wants to take the home of a World War II veteran dying of lung cancer, to give it to a luxury condominium developer. In New Brunswick, the city is trying to run off a local college bookstore owner who has owned his place for 33 years so that its redevelopment agency can build, among other things, another bookstore. In Union Township, a man who recently bought land to build townhouses on is being threatened by eminent domain so the township can turn the land over to another private developer who'll do exactly the same thing.

One who has come to watch the concert is Rev. Kevin Brown, who says his storefront ministry in Long Branch is being threatened by eminent domain. He calls himself a "butler in the house of God," who ministers to "everyone who suffers from eminent domain." He hauls a Bible around, tossing out anti-eminent domain scriptures ("Thou shalt not covet they neighbor's house"). After Kelo, he says, it's like "they let the lions on the Christians." Being an Em-Do minister, it turns out, is a good racket. "My congregation is always growing," he says.

Clements tries to keep the mood light. He apologizes to members of Hello Nurse for the paltry numbers, saying some day, during their "Behind the Music" special, they'll look back and laugh. His cohort Dowlearn, a part-time musician himself, says it's not that bad a gig. "We once played a hemp show at a nudist colony. They asked us to keep our clothes on."

After Dowlearn shoots some B-roll of Clements riding a horse at the stable, Clements can't help but show his disappointment. "Was it Woody Allen who said, 'Most of life is showing up'? That's the hardest thing--getting people to show up. I shouldn't have planned a rally. I'm starting to lose interest. I'm disappointed that people talk about how mad they are, but then don't get their corpus in front of a home that's being taken." He takes a last look at Em-Do Woodstock, shaking his head. "I should've invited motorcycle gangs."

The next day is eviction day, though that's come and gone before thanks to last-minute maneuvering by the Halpers' attorneys. Clements believes that however well meaning the lawyers, they're just delaying the inevitable, and this is his third expensive trip from California to Piscataway trying to catch the magic on film.

The last time Clements came here in vain, he made the trip worth his while by confronting Mayor Brian Wahler at a street fair with a camera and a Vladimir Lenin impersonator. Clements and Lenin tried to present Wahler with the "People's Award for Expropriation and Confiscation." The award was an old cheerleading trophy, the cheerleader's megaphone replaced with a hammer and sickle. Wahler wasn't in the mood to accept, telling them, "I'm going to give you exactly two minutes to get out of here."

When Wahler put a hand on him, Clements snapped, "Don't put your arm around me. You're not my friend. You're an enemy of property rights, you're an enemy of the Constitution, and you're a little dictator. And you're taking the Halpers' land. So we're going to be here all day. Lenin, you like cotton candy don't you?" Lenin never got his cotton candy. The Piscataway dictator's police force soon chased them off.

Outside and inside the Halpers' house, protesters gather, while TV trucks park in their driveway. Clements slips into his "spy shirt," a black Kenneth Cole number with a button ripped off so he can insert a hidden micro camera. It's good for catching cop-talk when they don't want you to film. As the eviction deadline of 3 P.M. draws nigh, there's little excitement to capture. There seems to be a much higher than usual police presence off the Halpers' property. One of them actually tickets Clements's car for parking too close to a stop sign.

But the only semi-official visit comes when two gentlemen in reflector shades and police-academy-issue mustaches drive down one of the Halpers' farm roads in an unmarked vehicle. When Clements runs at their car, asking them what they want, they ask for directions to a street they're already headed toward, which lies only 100 yards away. They're clearly on a scouting trip.

Three o'clock comes and goes, as do four and five. It becomes clear that the police aren't going to move on the Halpers while they have so much company. As the night wears on, the crowd disperses, and all who are left are the family, the Clements crew, and me. Clara has been whisked off to Manhattan by a Fox producer to do a live segment with Sean Hannity, the only other national journalist who's screaming bloody murder about the case.

We decide to spend the night on the living room floor, figuring it's likely that the police will pay a visit after dark, when they think no outsiders are there. Clements and I go to Wal-Mart to buy air mattresses and ten latch-locks, which he reasons will give us fair warning when the stormtroopers come, plus, it'll make a better visual. We also stop by the liquor store, to fashion a poor-man's wet bar in Larry's living room.

Back at the house, Clements wants to lift Larry and Zac's spirits, billing this an "Eminent Domain all-night party," as if we're at the MTV beach house. But with Clara and the girls gone, it's a total sausage fest. Clements sets about clumsily hammering his new locks into the door frame, since Larry's drill and screwdrivers are packed away. Cosmetic damage no longer matters. Larry doesn't drink or even make much conversation. It's days since he's had a decent night's sleep. He simply sits on the couch bleary-eyed. After half-heartedly eating a few sour cream'n'onion Pringles (the only meal he's had all day), he falls asleep despite all the hammering noise, after blankly watching the empty space where his television used to be.

Larry's son Zac, equally sleep-deprived, is a little more social. He explains his father's exhaustion. "We always work like it's the last day, since we don't know when the last day is." He's decided to fight alongside his parents, but isn't sure how much longer he wants the fight to go on. "I want to go on vacation," he says, sounding just for a moment like the 16-year-old he is. Then hardening up again, he says, "But I don't want to leave like this. I'd like to get paid."

That night, we all sleep fitfully, stirring at every noise. The house is hot, and there are so many flies buzzing about our faces from the door being open during all the moving that it feels like we're in a Sally Struthers infomercial. The morning comes, and the cops haven't. With our guard now down, I drive a few miles away to pick up some provisions, plus a football to toss around the yard in case we're stuck here for awhile. Before I complete my mission, I get a call from Clements. "Get back," he says, "They're here."

Two cops have come, again in an umarked car, and knock on the door, but Clements and the Halpers won't answer. As I pull in, the unmarked car is pulling out. I stop them, and ask them what's going on. An officer in civilian clothes on the passenger side asks, "What's your name?" "What's your name?" I respond. It goes on like that for awhile. "I'm asking you," he says. "I'm asking you," I reply. He says he's from the Piscataway police and starts photographing me. I tell them I'm a journalist and just want to know what's going on. The driver says, "There's a house right over there," which he points at. Then he pulls away. If they came to take the house, they don't seem very proud of it.

When I go inside, Clements is bucking up the Halpers. He tells them when it all comes down, which it probably will shortly, they should sit on the couch and do the "jellyfish"--don't resist arrest, just make your body limp, and don't make it easier for them. He wants to film them getting carried out. Clements tells me privately that he thinks the Halpers are fighters, but he still worries a bit that during crunch time, "they'll pull a Fanaro." He's referring to John Fanaro, another eminent domain victim Clements pulled a stakeout with in nearby South Bound Brook. Fanaro lost his nerve at the last minute and walked out.

Larry, however, is a ferocious scrapper, and has vowed not to leave--"unless Clara's staying," he jokes. "They're taking my farm for a park," he says. "And now they're trying to throw me off a public park. They take your home, they take your livelihood, what else can they take? Your life?" It's a rhetorical question, but he answers it anyway. "I'm sure they'd like to, so they wouldn't have to write the check out to me."

The hours tick by, and there's no additional action. Finally word comes from the lawyers that there's been yet another last minute delay, with a hearing on the eviction scheduled three days from now. The Halpers don't look particularly happy, since they still know the inevitable outcome. Clements throws up his hands in frustration. He and Dowlearn need to get back to California, so they hastily ship out. I have a long-scheduled beach vacation, and am not far behind.

As I leave, Larry is outside wrestling with farm equipment. Zac has shredded a tire on a truck with a front-loader bucket prong, and Larry doesn't have a replacement. Meanwhile, the support skids have broken on the trailer he uses to transport his gargantuan topsoil screener--his bread'n'butter machine. He's also lost a badly needed $1,000 swimming pool job while dealing with all this mess. As his cellphone rings, his frustration has turned to delirium. He laughs maniacally to a friend on the end of the line, saying, "F-- this country, we're moving to Cuba." His life has turned into a bad movie: direction by Clements, screenplay by Sisyphus.

As I say my goodbyes to Clara in her empty living room, she wishes me well. But she warns, "They're getting rid of you guys, the press. And then they'll do something when nobody's looking. That's how they operate. They intimidate people." I tell her she's probably right, but we can't all camp out indefinitely. I ask her what she'll do next. "I really need a nap," she says.

The following week, I'm at the beach, in phone contact with the players. After a hearing that went nowhere, the eviction is on again, and Clements hauls it back to Piscataway for his fourth trip and what he hopes is the final showdown. Again, the police don't come. The Halpers stay past the deadline, and the judge, angry at their insubordination, decides to fine them retroactively $4,000 for every day they've stayed on the farm. Having racked up a $16,000 tab, they decide to check into the Hampton Inn.

Once they're gone, the police come in the dark of night to take possession of the property. I get a despondent call the next morning from Clements. "I feel like Charlie Brown, where somebody keeps pulling the football away," he says. "Nobody was there to get the shot." Now all he has, regarding the Halpers, he says, is "lots of B-roll and pictures of their boarded-up house."

Weeks later, I talk to Clara by phone. Her daughters, she tells me, are back from Israel, though the whole family is now living like transients, crashing on friends' and family's couches and in their guest bedrooms. Often, they're not under the same roof. Not only did they lose their house, but Larry still had most of his topsoil on the property--the equivalent of leaving money on the ground. Larry estimates there's about 30,000 cubic yards of it, which he says retails for about $30 a cubic yard. Now, it belongs to the government of Piscataway.

Anne Gordon, the township's public information officer, tells me, "They could've taken the topsoil. He had a year. He could've had new land. These delays were caused by him going to the courts." She says it's the Halpers' own fault for not working with the relocation specialists. But the Halpers say that's bunk, since the township's relocation specialists simply sent them a list of small residences and apartments. "I don't have an apartment," says Larry. "I have a farm." It's pretty difficult to fit 30,000 yards of topsoil into an apartment.

Clara is nervous for their future. They've scouted property as far away as Arizona, but haven't found anything. Since they don't have a place, she's not even sure where the kids will be going to school, and its Zac's senior year. She has no hope of getting their ornamental trees back from the township. "They bulldozed the pin oaks and maples," she says.

She misses many things about their place, from their great room to "being outdoors, the fields, that oneness with nature. I miss the quiet, the peace, it was wonderful. It was our sanctuary." Still, they'd like to move on, but the township "won't let us, they won't pay us and cut the umbilical cord and let us move on. This is more than a taking, it's a vengeance. It's more like a rape. And it's repeated, over and over."

As for Clements, he bears no ill will toward the Halpers for compromising his money shot. "They're fighters. They're heroes," he says. "The judge left them no choice." He's going to get his shot, he promises. He's currently scouting more "user-friendly evictees." And he's not just playing defense, either, but plans to launch a major new offensive.

If David Souter thought his house was safe, he'd better think again. Clements says he has found a loophole in New Hampshire statute XXXIX, chapter 423, that allows a town to seize land outside its borders for an airport, meaning that he can work around Souter's hometown of Weare. Plans for the Lost Liberty Hotel have been transformed into plans for the Lost Liberty Airport (motto: Live Free or Fly). Clements says he has already lined up sympathetic selectmen in another town, which he is keeping under wraps until everybody's ready to move. He allows that he might've acted too impulsively the first time around. "Last time I just said I'm going to do this in Weare without asking anyone in Weare if they wanted to get on board."

Clements knows nothing about airports, but has already found the perfect person to operate one: Thor Solberg, whose own private airport in Readington, N.J., which was built by his father, is being threatened by eminent domain. Solberg's airport is home to one of the largest hot-air balloon festivals on the East Coast. Clements points out that Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer, who, like Souter, voted the wrong way on Kelo, lives in New Hampshire, too.

"We hope that's how the movie will end," says Clements, ever the optimist. "With victims of eminent domain abuse taking off in a balloon from the Lost Liberty Airport, with connecting service between Souter's and Breyer's land." He knows it sounds like a pipe dream, so he ladles out a dose of realism: "That's assuming the wind permits."

Matt Labash is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.