The Shadow of Condemnation Hangs Over Historic Pennsylvania

History is at stake in Ardmore, a charming town founded in 1686 in the heart of a Philadelphia suburb. Lancaster Avenue, originally a horse-and-foot trail, is now home to an eclectic mix of locally owned and operated retail stores and restaurants. It is a stunningly diverse community, and its residents enjoy a high quality of life and take pleasure in the distinctive beauty of Lower Merion Township.

But then, the Township brought eminent domain into the picture. In the hope of replacing a long-standing block of profitable family businesses with chain stores, chic apartments and a 600-car garage, Lower Merion Township intends to condemn the businesses that give Ardmore its unique character. If passed, the plan calls for the demolition of 10 properties, all designated Class I historic buildings by the Township itself.[1]

The Township is poised to bulldoze family-owned businesses that have as much history as the buildings themselves. Suburban Office Equipment, established in 1926, is a third-generation outfit that has survived the Great Depression, several wars and the economic booms and busts of the 20th Century. Hu-Nan Restaurant is a popular eatery, owned by a Chinese immigrant who came to the United States as a graduate student in 1963, who chased and eventually achieved the American Dream. A hall that houses VFW and American Legion posts stands as a second home to heroic soldiers who courageously defended the rights of all Americans.

The Save Ardmore Coalition, a non-profit organization founded by a group of local citizens, stands in staunch opposition to the township’s proposed eminent domain condemnations—and the very idea that their stores and restaurants can be taken by the government and given to a private commercial developer.

‘I Don’t Know What to Do’: One Business Owner and the Launch of a Coalition

Activists in Ardmore rally against eminent domain abuse.

Scott Mahan isn’t an activist by choice; He’s an activist by necessity—a hardworking man who has fought tooth and nail to keep his family’s Suburban Office Equipment store in its location since 1926. His grandfather started Suburban and it has stayed in his family since then—now run by him, his mother and his brother.[2]

“The store is a part of me and it’s been a part of my family for generations,” he said.

When Scott received a letter in February 2004 informing him that Lower Merion Township had targeted his property and those of his neighbors for eminent domain acquisitions, he was devastated and uncertain about how to proceed.

“I can remember sitting there in my office one night thinking, ‘I don’t know what to do. How can a bunch of small business people and residents take on one of the most powerful townships in Pennsylvania,’” he said.

The answer: joining together. Scott and his community of fellow business owners immediately set out to gather as much information on the proposed development project as possible, and they immediately familiarized themselves with the state and municipal laws governing eminent domain.

“We consulted the Castle Coalition website and we hired a lawyer,” Mahan said. Looking forward, he said, “Practically everyone in town shops at our stores and we all wanted to keep it that way.”

This was the beginning of the Save Ardmore Coalition, a grassroots coalition that has since grown to more than 1,000 members—all of whom share a commitment to protecting the fundamental right of all Americans to keep their homes and small businesses.

In September 2004, the Township hired an independent consulting firm to study Ardmore and assess the extent to which economic redevelopment really required condemning their properties, as local officials contended. The Urban Land Institute, an outside organization that specializes in land use and has no financial connection to the business owners or the Township, conducted a comprehensive study of the downtown business district slated for demolition, and strongly urged against the plans proposed by the Planning Commission. Instead, the Institute submitted a number of alternative approaches to the Township, all of which protect property rights and promise the same benefits the municipality sought without condemning the Ardmore properties.[3]

“We kept coming up with alternative plans, but the Township kept ignoring us,” Mahan said.

In December 2004, the Lower Merion Board of Commissioners overwhelmingly approved the most destructive redevelopment option of all the plans submitted for its consideration. The proposal submitted by Hillier Architects called for the demolition of Ardmore’s entire historic district—even though Hillier simultaneously concluded that all of the buildings were in restorable condition.[4]

Scott Mahan and the Save Ardmore Coalition continued fighting, attending all civic meetings, speaking against the proposal and especially against the abuse of eminent domain, and pursuing practically every grassroots avenue available.

“We’d march to the meetings, carrying signs and making statements. We’d have 300 people on our side, and 100 of them spoke out against the Hillier plan,” he said. “We just kept gaining momentum and the SAC kept growing and growing.”


To find out more about the Save Ardmore Coalition, check out

In Lower Merion Township, an area has to be considered “blighted” in order to condemn properties for private development—and that’s exactly the path the Township chose from the outset.

Scott Mahan was surprised that the city had declared his property and the rest of Ardmore’s historic district “blighted.” He said, “I was shocked because it’s not blighted. It’s a way for them to grab the property from the people that own it to give it to somebody else. That offends me.”

Even amidst this frustration—and the threat that their buildings and business would be taken away from them—Mahan and the Save Ardmore Coalition painted and cleaned up the buildings that are slated for
demolition. By ripping down plywood paneling and improving the town’s aesthetics, the Coalition hoped to work with local officials to preserve their businesses while simultaneously beautifying Ardmore.[5]

The members of the Save Ardmore Coalition want a better Ardmore, but not at the expense of the history and character that makes the town unique—and not when their businesses are taken from under them through public force.

Hillier Architects independently concluded that none of the ten historic structures slated for demolition are beyond repair, and the Urban Land Institute urged the Township to adopt its own redevelopment plan for the district that did not involve the use of eminent domain.[6] The Economist magazine even went so far as declaring, “A brief walkabout reveals that it is no more blighted than the potato you ate for lunch.”[7]

The Democratic Approach

The Save Ardmore Coalition has coordinated a powerful campaign against eminent domain abuse and has vocally opposed the government’s condemnation plans every step of the way.

It has also taken the fight for property rights much further. SAC members attended the Castle Coalition’s Washington, D.C. conference and Mahan shared his story at the Institute for Justice’s unveiling of its “Hands Off My Home” campaign at the National Press Club.

“The conference helped us a lot because we met other people going through the same thing. You know you’re not alone; you learn from each other,” Mahan said.

The Coalition filed a lawsuit challenging the condemnations on the grounds that the use of eminent domain for private commercial development violates Pennsylvania’s constitutional protections. A judge recently dismissed the legal action as premature, since the final votes for condemnation have not yet taken place.

A legal challenge was only one path through which the Save Ardmore Coalition has fought against the condemnations of their properties. Over the past year, Mahan has testified on behalf of the Save Ardmore Coalition before the Pennsylvania legislature in support of a measure that would significantly restrict the state’s use of eminent domain and he has played a significant role in Lower Merion’s local elections for township ward commissioners.

He said, “Eventually, elected officials are going to have to listen. And, if they don’t, get better people in office.”

That’s exactly the approach the Coalition pursued—and with critical success. Ardmore activists campaigned against candidates and incumbents that supported eminent domain. Of the seven candidate-elects, four signed pledges not to use eminent domain for private commercial development and two have previously voted against the measure—meaning, for now, it appears the new commissions may not choose to pursue condemnation.

The Save Ardmore Coalition stands as a model for the many homeowners and business people across America who face similar struggles. Mahan emphasizes the importance of other grassroots coalitions mounting effective attacks on the widespread and frequent uses of eminent domain for private development throughout the nation.

Mahan offered advice to other people going through similar situations: “You have to stay together, make a commitment together that you’re going to fight the abuse, and get as many neighbors on your side as you can.”

As for his own business, Scott says the Township has effectively put Suburban Office Equipment into a holding pattern.

“We spend a lot of energy fighting to keep the business, effort that could be channeled to build it,” he said.

For Scott Mahan and the many other property owners whose businesses and livelihoods have been imperiled by Lower Merion Township’s proposed redevelopment plan, the threat of condemnation is just as bad as the use. The mere possibility that the Township may take their properties has understandably made them reluctant to make major improvements. Their campaign has evolved into a much larger mission

“It’s not just about my business and Susette Kelo’s house,” Mahan said. “It’s about the country that our children will live in. It’s about being at an important point in history. It’s about fighting what ultimately amounts to abuse.”

And it’s about securing the constitutional rights of all Americans—one step at a time.

[1] See; Note: Chapter 88 of the Lower Merion Township Code designates Class I historic buildings.

[2] Scott Mahan, Personal Interview with Justin Gelfand, Nov. 14, 2005. Note: This is the source of all Scott Mahan quotations contained herein.

[3] Urban Land Institute, “An Advisory Services Panel Report: Ardmore, Pennsylvania,” Revitalization of Historic Ardmore: Finding the Tipping Point, Sept. 24, 2004.

[5] Richard Ilgenfritz, “Coalition Sues to Block Redevelopment,” Main Line Times, Apr. 21, 2005.

[6] Urban Land Institute, “An Advisory Services Panel Report: Ardmore, Pennsylvania,” Revitalization of Historic Ardmore: Finding the Tipping Point, Sept. 24, 2004.

[7] “Hands off our homes,” The Economist, Aug. 18, 2005.