HomeVietnamese AmericanVietnamese immigrant defended her properties against township

Vietnamese immigrant defended her properties against township

By Yunfei Liu

Thao Le, a Vietnamese immigrant living in Cinnaminson, New Jersey, won the legal battle against her township, and preserved her two lots next to Route 130.

In 2022, Cinnaminson Township tried to seize her lots through eminent domain, a federal power allowing the federal government to acquire property for public use. After several legal battles at the county level, the New Jersey Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of Le.

For Le, two lots 305 and 307 on Burlington Pike are important components of her American dream.

Having immigrated to the United States at the age of 18, Le is now 45 years old and a mother of three college students. With over 20 years of business experience, Le owns a kitchen and bath cabinetry business adjacent to the contested lots. 

Le said she purchased lots 305 and 307 before COVID-19. Currently, she uses these lots to store idle equipment but has plans to rebuild them as part of her cabinetry sales business.

“If the government needs to build a bridge, a hospital, a municipal or anything like that, we will work with the township,” Le said. “But this is not that case, the township decides to benefit a private investor from another town.”

Cinnaminson Township has its own redevelopment plan for these two lots. It settled down on a Chick-fil-A restaurant in early 2021, according to NJ.com.

Chick-fil-A sign

Legal proceedings unfolded in 2022 when the township petitioned the Superior Court for eminent domain. Despite an initial victory for Le, the township filed another suit in September 2023 and won. Le then appealed the decision at the state level

Le said she lived in constant fear when the case went back and forth. She recorded a video of a police officer showing up on the lots without noticing her. She even moved everything out of her storage on the controversial lots, fearing the township might demolish the building without her consent. 

Despite the challenges, Le received a lot of support from her neighborhood, acquaintances, and especially within her family. Her youngest son accompanied her to the court and gave her a hug when she came home with updates. Le said, although her son already got a real-estate license from college, he is now considering law school, because he wants to protect his family and other Asian or non-Asian immigrants facing language barriers. 

“I want to be a leader in my family and a model for my children,” Le said, “So that they understand that their mother came here with broken English [but] here is what she can do.”

This case also underscores the challenge of defining the precise limits of eminent domain.

While the Constitution empowers the government to take private property for public use, such as for roads, government buildings, or schools, the question arises when transferring property from one private owner to another, according to Timothy P. Duggan, a New Jersey lawyer with over 30 years of experience, who serves as the Chairman of the Eminent Domain Group at Stark & Stark.

The government needs to demonstrate that the property meets a certain level of “blight” to justify its acquisition. In the Cinnaminson case, the township expressed concerns regarding the safety issues and complaints about the two lots, noting their vacancy for over ten years before Le’s acquisition.

However, these reasons didn’t convince the Supreme Court of New Jersey. The Court said in its opinion that the township needs to find not just “some evidence” but “substantial evidence”, which it failed to provide.

“You cannot take one person’s property simply because there’s a better use for it,” Duggan explained, “Or I can come in and say, ‘Oh, I think your house is too small. I want to knock it down and build a prettier one.’”

Duggan also mentioned that many individuals can’t afford the expense or the resources to find a good lawyer when confronted with an eminent domain case.

“These are very expensive fights. A lot of people don’t have the money to hire a good lawyer to fight that fight,” Duggan said.

Le is pleased that the appellate court ruled in favor of her and she can keep her property.

“We trust the Township will respect the well-reasoned opinion of the appellate court, based in part on a recent Supreme Court decision that undercut entirely the trial court’s decision here,” she said in a statement. 

Cinnimanson Township said it strongly disagreed with the ruling and is considering options including appealing the appellate court’s decision.

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