Stopping the Vote

Defenders of eminent domain for economic development—who steadfastly maintain that the political process alone is sufficient to stop abusive condemnations—have recently gone to extreme measures to keep voters out of these decisions entirely.

Concerned citizens in Clayton, Mo., who organized as the aptly named Committee to Stop Abuse of Eminent Domain, circulated petitions that would force a referendum on the City’s highly contentious proposed use of eminent domain. Downtown business owners along the 7700 block of Forsyth Boulevard in the St. Louis suburb more than met the minimum number of signatures necessary to bring this issue to the ballot—exceeding the quota four times over. At issue is the Centene Plaza development project, a $190 million private commercial development that is slated to take beautiful homes and thriving small businesses by eminent domain and replace them with a 16-story headquarters building for the Centene Corp. and other retail establishments.[1]

But Clayton City officials have decided to operate under a technical provision in the City Charter that prohibits a referendum in situations such as this one where a bill is introduced and passed unanimously at the same meeting. Not surprisingly, that’s exactly what the Clayton City Council did—and in doing so, it stopped the voters from becoming the ultimate democratic check, usurping authority entirely to itself.[2]

Michael F. Neidorff, chairman and CEO of Centene, said, “It is now time for everyone to decide if they want jobs or just want to talk about it.”[3] Yet the City Council is doing everything within its power to stop everyone from having the opportunity to make that decision.

Citizens across Missouri are energized to bring statewide eminent domain reform straight to the voters. This month, the Castle Coalition has crisscrossed the state, working with property owners on grassroots activism, testifying before a number of legislative bodies, and urging the genuine reform of laws governing eminent domain to better protect property rights.

However, Peter Yelorda, chairman of the State’s Tax Increment Financing Commission (a governmental entity that has a hand in eminent domain abuse), emphasized just how terrified he is of the prospect of a statewide referendum. He said, “If it goes to the public, we’re in trouble.”[4]

This mentality is not limited to Missouri. In January 2006, the Pembroke Pines, Fl., Charter Review Board—a municipal body charged with assessing the City Charter—unanimously voted to ask City commissioners to put a critical question on the ballot: whether the City should be prohibited from seizing private houses so developers can tear them down and build new projects in their place.[5]

Afraid to give citizens the chance to make this important decision, City Commissioners voted 3-2 against the request.[6] It turns out the Charter Board wanted the question on the March ballot to prevent City officials from condemning private property for economic development under a $100-million bond issue that voters approved in March 2005 designating millions of dollars for economic redevelopment.

Similarly, City officials in Lorain, Ohio, voted 9-2 in November 2005 to designate 65 acres as an urban renewal area—giving them the power to ultimately take those properties by eminent domain. An emergency clause in the ordinance prohibits residents from petitioning for a referendum on the decision, according to Councilwoman Kathy Tavenner, who cast one of the two votes against the proposal.[7] She said, “This is not a blighted area…. What if someone wants to do a referendum on the blight study? They can’t do that now.”[8]

As Institute for Justice attorney Dana Berliner recently argued before the Ohio Supreme Court in City of Norwood v. Horney, courts and lawmakers alike have a responsibility to respect constitutional limitations on the power of eminent domain. Defenders of eminent domain all too often draw a false choice between protecting individual rights and meeting community redevelopment objectives. The Castle Coalition has shown time and time again that Americans can have both, and the Castle Coalition urges city officials to bring these issues straight to the voters.

Throughout the United States, concerned citizens are working long hours to organize voter initiatives. As practically every poll taken since the U.S. Supreme Court’s now infamous decision in Kelo v. City of New London indicates, Americans overwhelmingly oppose eminent domain for private gain, and citizens certainly understand what’s at stake.

Meanwhile, government officials nationwide are abusing eminent domain, neglecting entirely the rights of home and business owners to keep what’s already rightfully theirs. The Castle Coalition urges legislators at all levels of government to respect private property rights, and never to use eminent domain for private development. In Clayton and elsewhere, local government officials are usurping political power to such an extent that citizens can no longer turn to City Hall.

After all, if the political process really is a sufficient check on eminent domain abuse, why are city officials in Missouri, Florida, Ohio—and nationwide—so afraid to let the voters decide?

The answer is simple: Americans oppose eminent domain abuse now more than ever, and they’d surely vote accordingly.

[1] Margaret Gillerman, “Despite petitions, Clayton referendum still in doubt,” Knight-Ridder Tribune Business News, January 6, 2006.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Kevin Collison, “Eminent domain’s defenders go to work,” The Kansas City Star, December 20, 2005.

[5] Joe Kollin, “Eminent domain vote falters; 3 on commission oppose taking issue to public,” Sun-Sentinel, Jan. 8, 2006 at 1.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Shawn Foucher, “Retail project gets green light,” The Chronicle-Telegram, Dec. 16, 2005.

[8] Shawn Foucher, “Lorain votes on urban renewal,” The Chronicle-Telegram, Nov. 2005 (online edition).