By Carla J. Zambelli
Save Ardmore Coalition
Eminent Domain for private gain is legal stealing, economic segregation, and more often than not, class warfare. When you receive a notice of a taking, your world turns inside out, not just upside down. At first you feel like you are in the battle completely and utterly alone. But you aren't alone. There are a lot of us out there.
I didn't set out in life to become a grassroots activist on any level, but eminent domain is an issue that, as an American, I found I simply could not ignore. Let me tell you our story in Ardmore, Pa., where eminent domain threatened a block of small businesses in a local historic business district.
Ardmore is in Lower Merion Township, which is situated in Montgomery County, Pa., just minutes outside of Philadelphia. Ardmore is your quintessential old fashioned main street-oriented town. It represents the bygone days of small town America.
One night in February 2004, my fiancé and I headed off to our typical Friday night dinner destination–Hu Nan Restaurant in Ardmore. This was a tradition started by my parents when I was a child. That night we found out that my family tradition for the past 30 years might cease to exist.
When we got to the restaurant and were seated, the proprietors, Dr. E Ni and Betty Foo were unusually subdued, and Betty was sad.
“The township sent me a letter. They want to take my business.” Betty said with tears in her voice.
Betty told us about all of the businesses at risk, including Suburban Office Equipment, which has been in business since 1926, and the local VFW Post next door to Hu Nan.
The township had declared the block “blighted,” and it intended to acquire these properties in a certified historic district for inclusion in a mixed-use development project to be owned by a private party. Eminent domain abuse was coming to Ardmore.
The Foos asked us to get involved, and we went to a meeting on the second floor of their restaurant and met not only the other targeted business owners, but ordinary citizens just like us who cared. We came from all walks of life and occupations. We became the Save Ardmore Coalition, or “SAC”.
One of the first lessons we learned as SAC was that when you are fighting a battle like this, you become an instant pariah. SAC next contacted the Institute for Justice and newly formed Castle Coalition, who gave us a crash course in grassroots activism. We became a 501(c)(4) Non Profit Civic Action Organization. We also started our own website (www.saveardmorecoalition.org) to get our message out faster and farther.
We held rallies, protests and community meetings. We wrote letters to the newspapers until we had writer's cramp. We took every opportunity to speak at public meetings. We lobbied government officials on a state and national level.
And we hit roadblocks. Although eminent domain had become a national issue when Susette Kelo took her case to the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Philadelphia area we discovered it was hard to get media attention from anyone other than the local papers. Eminent domain wasn't sexy enough—it was just “a local issue”. We were called NIMBY and castigated publicly by certain local elected officials at public meetings, who referred to us as “a small group of mean spirited individuals.”
But we hung in there. We found support from not only the Institute for Justice, but from folks like Nancy and Dick Saha of Coatesville, Pa., and the late Rosemary Cubas of Philadelphia who were fighting eminent domain as well. We were suddenly part of a very large and supportive family!
When someone told us in a letter if we didn't like how government was run we should “change the face of who governs us,” our resolve as a group was strengthened. We decided to change literally the faces of those who were governing us. We had an upcoming election. We didn't back one candidate in particular but decided they should all adopt our position and take IJ's pledge against the use of eminent domain for private gain.
We were successful. In November 2005, we watched as five new faces against eminent domain were elected to the 14-member Board of Commissioners.
During this whole time before and after the election, we had the good fortune to finally get some national and even international media publicity. We networked further with other eminent domain fighting citizens locally and nationally. We continued our campaign in the local newspapers and on our website. Honestly, our website put us on the map. The Internet was a most valuable tool. Members also gave testimony before both the Pennsylvania Senate and the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. We submitted written testimony to the U.S. Congress and became part of the record on HR 4128.
In February 2006, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner came to town with Congressman Jim Gerlach to discuss eminent domain. In March 2006, the five new commissioners who came to office promising to end the specter of eminent domain did just that: they proposed and passed a resolution to end eminent domain. Our businesses were free.
Today, as a group, we continue to work for the betterment of our community, including being a part of the eminent domain-free redevelopment process, and a local monthly arts crawl called First Friday Main Line, the brainchild of one of our members. We also continue to play it forward and offer support to other groups still fighting eminent domain.
We are living proof that David can prevail against Goliath. So take heart and remember: you are not alone.