Correspondents' Corner

February 14, 2008

When it comes to battling eminent domain on the grassroots level, you the property owner, the resident, the neighbor, are the best expert when it comes to figuring out the tactics best suited to your community. CastleWatch’s “Correspondents’ Corner” features the experiences and expertise of property owners, in their own words. We hope they will be a continuing source of inspiration for those who continue to fight to protect their properties from eminent domain abuse.

How Do You Spell “Em-men-nent”?

By Phil Jakes-Johnson

Syracuse, New York

In April 2002, the Onondaga County Industrial Development Agency voted to use eminent domain to push many tenants out of a mall so that they could build a project on a much larger, glitzier scale, to be named “Destiny USA.” But the business and homeowners took destiny into their own hands: they joined together to form the “Salina 29,” led in part by Phil Jakes-Johnson, and began their activism by attending the Castle Coalition’s national conference in 2005. In January 2007, after almost two years of persistent activism, OCIDA took eminent domain off the table for the plan.

In March of 2005, I learned how to spell “eminent” without any hesitation. That was the month Onondaga County, N.Y., decided my business, along with 26 other businesses and two homes, would be a great place to have a 325-acre research park.

My first informal organizational meeting of property owners revealed the myriad of opinions and personalities affected by this land deal. I thought people would be excited about the new project that said we would be bought out by another private company eager to use our land.

My enthusiasm was not shared throughout the group. Some referred to the deal as a “bargain-basement” buyout. Others were not opposed as long as proper compensation would to be implemented. We knew that eminent domain was on the table, but we were unclear as to how our land was going to be used for public good. We thought that if our buyer was another private company, then eminent domain could not be used.

As the details of the project were revealed, we realized that eminent domain was in fact possible and happening. Our land was being assessed, not for the benefit of public good, but for the benefit of another private company. The situation grew more complex, and it became clear that if we wanted to protect our land we would have to be a conglomerate of 29 and not 29 individuals fighting alone.

In our second meeting we came together to form “The Salina 29.” We decided that legal assistance should be sought because most of us were still unsure about the legal parameters. We met with a law firm familiar with eminent domain issues in New York State. They informed us that we had little hope of winning in a court of law and that if we wanted to prevent the government from using eminent domain for a developer’s private gain, we should appeal to the court of public opinion.

We did this as an effective group by presenting ourselves to the public as a unified entity that stressed the positive aspects of the project. We never were against the use of eminent domain for public benefit. We were against the use of eminent domain in the context in which it was presented to us—that is, taking private land from one owner and giving it to another for private use. By keeping our mission statement for development and jobs, we avoided the “good” and “bad” dichotomy. Our public connection was established through the use of press releases, signs, demonstrations and public discussions. Every time we approached this issue, we did so by stressing the abuse of eminent domain and not merely the use of it. Our stance was never framed as “us” vs. “them,” despite the persistent push from the media for us to do so.

Within our group tensions would run high, with some people wanting to take a more aggressive approach. We managed these differences by having weekly meetings and delegating a hierarchy of officers. Whatever the differences, we were all in agreement that consistency would be the key to our success. We tried to have one spokesperson that would push our one message: “We all want growth and jobs. The Salina 29 just doesn’t want to use eminent domain for private gain in order to achieve this growth.” No matter the question or setting, we always stressed some variation of that theme.

Things didn’t always go smoothly for us, despite our positive approach. But whenever we would experience a setback, whether from the government or from an article, it became imperative for us to remember that no one article or ruling would make or break this multi-faceted case. The same intricacies that made this case daunting helped to ensure that no one person or event would determine the fate of the Salina 29.

In the end, the court’s decision swung in our favor. Early last year, the developer announced that he would move forward without the use of eminent domain. Thank goodness for freedom of expression and the fundamental American belief in property rights.