National Constitution Center Honors Susette Kelo on Constitution Day

Susette Kelo, the woman known for her courageous stand against eminent domain abuse in the Supreme Court case, Kelo v. City of New London, will have her name added to the American National Tree, a popular exhibit inside The Story of We the People at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Penn.  The ceremony will take place on Friday, September 17, 2010, at 10:00 a.m.  The exhibit tells the stories of more than 100 Americans whose actions have helped write the story of the Constitution.  

“The stand taken by Susette Kelo and her neighbors truly transformed this nation for the better,” said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Scott Bullock, who argued Kelo’s case before the Supreme Court and who will appear with Kelo at the ceremony.  “It is only appropriate that the Constitution Center recognize the historic role played by the homeowners in New London who stood up for their rights and, in so doing, fought for the property rights of all Americans.”

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision against Kelo sparked a nation-wide backlash against eminent domain abuse, leading eight state supreme courts and 43 state legislatures to strengthen protections for property rights.  Moreover, in the five years since the Kelo decision, citizen activists have defeated 44 projects that sought to abuse eminent domain for private development.     

The event will be held on Constitution Day (September 17), marking the 223rd anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution.  The Center selected high school student Nick Liu of North Carolina as the winner of the 2010 M.R. Robinson National Constitution Center American National Tree Award.  Liu will write the biography of Kelo that will be featured in the exhibit.

Following the 10:00 a.m. ceremony, visitors are invited to the Grand Hall Overlook at 10:30 a.m. for a special reading by Liu of his winning essay on Kelo, as well as a question-and-answer session with Susette Kelo and Scott Bullock.

Another Victory in Wisconsin

Business owners in Greenville, Wis., celebrated their hard-won victory Thursday night when the city council voted unanimously to prohibit the use of eminent domain for private development.[1] 

The city had targeted successful businesses around Loomis Road and I-894 earlier this summer for seizure by eminent domain because they wanted to “redevelop” the area “someday.”  Property owners were expected to pack their bags and get out even though city officials had no concrete plan for the area and no developer lined up to execute it.  

The Castle Coalition and IJ attorney Jason Adkins reached out to the businesses owners and provided them with valuable strategies and tactics to use in their fight. Following recommendations from Adkins and the Castle Coalition’s Eminent Domain Abuse Survival Guide, business owners rallied together to demand elected officials respect their property rights.

The group staged rallies and spoke out at important council meetings to show their opposition to eminent domain abuse. They also reached out to the media, gaining valuable exposure that left city officials panicked.

Officials like Alderwoman Linda Lubotsky definitely got the message: “I’ve been getting e-mails, and phones calls, and just listening to what the people want, and to take your business to put a bigger business in just isn’t fair.”[2]  Thanks to the property owners’ relentless advocacy, Lubotsky and the rest of the Council voted to end the use of eminent domain for private gain.

Now Bill Maynard, who owns an auto-repair once targeted for acquisition, can get back to earning a living for his family.  Maynard and other Greenville property owners can feel secure in their businesses, safe from the leering eyes of brazen urban planners.

 

 

[1] Charles Benson, “Greenfields Votes Down Development,” Today’s TMJ4 CBS, August 20, 2010.

[2] Mike Lowe, “Greenfield Common Council puts end to city’s eminent domain tactics,” Fox 6 Now, August 19, 2010.

Successful Businesses Labeled “Blighted” in Wisconsin

It’s becoming clearer that legislators in the State of Wisconsin need to reform the State’s eminent domain laws with regard to the taking of “blighted” properties and areas.  

Just ask Bill Maynard, owner of a 12-bay auto repair center in Greenfield, Wisconsin that is so clean you could practically eat off the floor.  In fact, the landscaping around the business even won an award from the Greenfield Beautification Committee.

But now, Greenfield city leaders have determined that Maynard’s business, along with a number of others along a coveted strip of property on Loomis Avenue, is “blighted” and should be taken so the city can turn the land over to a private company to redevelop the area.  

There’s just one catch:  the city does not have a developer lined up.  Nor will it be developing the area for at least three years.  In fact, the city has claimed that the coming years will allow it to “more thoroughly plan” what the redevelopment will look like.

So, let’s summarize.  The City of Greenfield wants to take successful businesses for a redevelopment plan in which it has no developer and it itself hasn’t even totally planned.  

Adding to the irony, the redevelopment project is supposed to be linked to an adjacent transit center (that is, park & ride).  Now, what could be a better fit for a project centered around a park & ride than an auto repair shop?  

That makes too much sense.  Instead, the city is opting for the typical “mixed-use” development prized by city planners from Albuquerque to Atlanta.  More condos!

But, you’re asking, “How could the Maynard’s property be considered blighted?”  Good question.  Let’s have a quick look at Wisconsin’s definition of “blighted area,” found in section 66.1333 of the Wisconsin Statutes:

66.1333(2m)(b)
(b) “Blighted area” means any of the following:

66.1333(2m)(b)1.
1. An area, including a slum area, in which there is a predominance of buildings or improvements, whether residential or nonresidential, which by reason of dilapidation, deterioration, age or obsolescence, inadequate provision for ventilation, light, air, sanitation, or open spaces, high density of population and overcrowding, or the existence of conditions which endanger life or property by fire and other causes, or any combination of such factors is conducive to ill health, transmission of disease, infant mortality, juvenile delinquency, or crime, and is detrimental to the public health, safety, morals or welfare.

66.1333(2m)(b)2.
2. An area which by reason of the presence of a substantial number of substandard, slum, deteriorated or deteriorating structures, predominance of defective or inadequate street layout, faulty lot layout in relation to size, adequacy, accessibility or usefulness, unsanitary or unsafe conditions, deterioration of site or other improvements, diversity of ownership, tax or special assessment delinquency exceeding the fair value of the land, defective or unusual conditions of title, or the existence of conditions which endanger life or property by fire and other causes, or any combination of such factors, substantially impairs or arrests the sound growth of a city, retards the provision of housing accommodations or constitutes an economic or social liability and is a menace to the public health, safety, morals, or welfare in its present condition and use.

66.1333(2m)(b)3.
3. An area which is predominantly open and which because of obsolete platting, diversity of ownership, deterioration of structures or of site improvements, or otherwise, substantially impairs or arrests the sound growth of the community.

***

Now under that definition of blighted area, whole neighborhoods, perfectly sound in their outward appearance, could be considered blighted.  In Greenfield, the city appears to have seized on the fact that some of the businesses occupy decent-sized plots of land and, as a result, the land is “predominantly open.”  Nope, we’re not making this up.

Unfortunately, the Maynards and others in the area did not understand the significance of the local community development agency’s determination that the area was blighted, and as a result, the city has now put itself in position to take the land at any moment and give the owners 90 days to vacate the land.  

Greenfield has not yet pulled the trigger on these takings but will be holding hearings next week to determine its course of action.  On August 16, the city’s community development agency will meet to consider various options for moving ahead with the redevelopment plan, including the use of eminent domain.  On August 17, the Greenfield Common Council (city council) will meet to discuss the CDA’s recommendations and consider the city’s options with regard to the plan.

So far, a bank has been spared from the chopping block.  Hopefully, the city will at least consider building around those owners who are committed to staying in their homes and businesses on Loomis Avenue.  

Castle Coalition members should let the City of Greenfield know that eminent domain abuse is wrong!

Stay tuned for updates. In the meantime, check out this local news video.

Northside 1, Paul McKee 0

Developer Paul McKee’s $8.1 billion vision of bulldozing 1,500 acres of homes and businesses in St. Louis was dealt a fatal setback on Friday when the St. Louis Circuit Court struck down two city ordinances authorizing his proposal. [1] The judge agreed with local property owners that the Northside Redevelopment approved by St. Louis aldermen last fall failed to meet requirements set forth by state law.[2]

Judge Robert H. Dierker acknowledged that projected revenues “seem utterly incredible”:

“For example, Northside projects that Redevelopment Area C would generate an increase in assessed valuation on the order of 2400% over the life of the development plan with consequent massive increases in tax revenue.”[3]

The judge sympathized with the property owners’ arguments, noting the developer’s

“unprecedented plan that includes, in the words of a distinguished economist, ‘pie in the sky,’ and economic projections seemingly manufactured out of thin air.”[4]

He continues:

“The question before the Court, fundamentally, is whether the City’s Board of Aldermen had the discretion to say, in Alderman Bosley’s words, ‘Let’s try it.’ The Court concludes that the answer must be, ‘No.’”

St. Louis bureaucrats cozied up to private developer Paul McKee last year. The Board of Aldermen passed ordinances that labeled the Northside community “blighted” and established a $390 million Tax Increment Finance district that set in motion the potential for the billionaire developer to seize existing homes and businesses and replace them with luxury condos and ritzy retail space and keep any increase in tax revenue that his enormous redevelopment areas generated to pump back into his development. McKee sold his scheme to local politicians by promising to line their coffers with increased tax revenues. To alleviate the concerns of local property owners, he claimed, “We are not allowed to do eminent domain. That’s clear, it’s written in the document.”[5] But how else was he suddenly going to acquire so many acres of property when the property he wanted was not for sale?

The court determined that because no specific “project” was ever detailed, the authorizing ordinances were invalid. McKee’s plan to “redevelop” the entire Northside community depended on vastly exaggerated claims that had no base in reality. Even though he had drawn up plans to drive people out of the homes and businesses they had worked so hard to own, hired attorneys to argue his case in the courtroom, and convinced the city to finance his lofty vision, he had never sold the city on an actual project—just some grandiose “pie-in-the-sky.”

McKee says he’ll be challenging the ruling, but property owners have pledged to continue their fight for the property they rightfully own.[6]

A full copy of the decision is available here: http://stlouis.bizjournals.com/stlouis/stories/2010/06/28/daily60.html.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Brian Flinchpaugh, “Judge rules for plantiff in NorthSide redevelopment trial,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, July 2, 2010.

[2] Kelsey Volkmann, “Judge nixes $390M in financing for McKee’s NorthSide,” St. Louis Business Journal, July 2, 2010.

[3] Missouri ex rel. Smith v. TIF Commissioners, No. 0922-CC09379, Slip Op. at [17] (Mo. Cir. Ct. July 2, 2010).

[4] Missouri ex rel. Smith v. TIF Commissioners, No. 0922-CC09379, Slip Op. at [1] (Mo. Cir. Ct. July 2, 2010).

[5] Charles Jaco, “Paul McKee says North City development will go on despite ruling,” Fox2Now St. Louis, July 5, 2010.

[6] Kelsey Volkmann, “Judge nixes $390M in financing for McKee’s NorthSide,” St. Louis Business Journal, July 2, 2010.

Tuesday's New York Court of Appeals Oral Argument in Kaur v. ESDC

by Allison McCarty

Maffucci Fellow, Institute for Justice

Tensions simmered between the rightful owners of two Manhattanville small businesses and Columbia University officials in Tuesday’s oral argument before the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. In Kaur v. Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), the state is fighting to seize through eminent domain the businesses of Nick Sprayegen and the Singh family for a $6.3 billion expansion of Columbia University, a private, Ivy League school.

Tuesday’s 45-minute hearing was the most recent chapter in the ongoing fight for New Yorkers’ private property rights. Dana Berliner, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, said, “This is the kind of abuse of government power on behalf of powerful private interests the Framers of the Constitution sought to prevent when they drafted the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution and required that private property could only be taken for a public use. Taking someone’s land for a private institution like Columbia for its private use and profit is not a public use.”

Unsurprisingly, the Empire State Development Corporation is currently appealing a December 2009 New York Appellate Division ruling that agreed.

For years, Columbia University and the ESDC have been purchasing properties in the Manattanville neighborhood for the costly 17-acre expansion. Their aggressive plans leave no room for two business owners who simply want to keep what they’ve worked so hard to own. Both Nick Sprayegen, who owns Tuck-It-Away Storage, and the Singh family, which operates two gas stations, have invested a quarter of a century in their businesses and the local community. “This is everything I have,” said Mr. Singh, a 47-year old immigrant from India, as he stood in front of one of his gas stations. But this American Dream is unmoving to the wealthy, politically-connected school that wants more—and has co-opted government force to obtain it.

The ESDC defends its actions by claiming that the neighborhood is “blighted”—a bogus and indefensible complaint considering most of the run-down properties in question are owned and under the care of Columbia University. In fact, the consulting firm charged with declaring the properties blighted—AKRF—was a contractor for the school itself. With Columbia University’s fingerprints tainting all evidence, it seems that Columbia’s private interest, not a legitimate “public purpose,” motivated these eminent domain takings. Accordingly, the New York Appellate Division ruled that there is “no credible proof of blight in Manhattanville” and accused the ESDC of “mere sophistry.”

Such sophistry is all too common when private developers team up with their political allies to take others’ property through eminent domain, an abuse of power that runs rampant in the Empire State. IJ has documented 2,226 properties in New York that have either been condemned or threatened with condemnation for private development since 1998—and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

With this high-profile case, the New York Court of Appeals has the opportunity to decide whether individual rights are protected from or nullified by the prerogative of the politically-connected. A ruling is not expected for another six weeks, but the property owners and their advocates remain hopeful.

Christina Walsh, director of activism and coalitions for the Institute for Justice, said, “Nick Sprayregen, owner of Tuck-it-Away Self-Storage and the rest of the property owners are heroes who are standing up not only for their rights, but for the property rights of all New Yorkers. Every New Yorker should get behind them and demand that the courts protect their constitutionally enshrined rights. If the Court does not recognize at least some outer limit on government’s eminent domain power, then all property in the state is at risk.”

IJ and fellow advocates held a press conference outside of the court after Tuesday’s hearing. Attendees included property owner Nick Sprayregen and his attorney Norman Siegel; fellow property owner and party to the lawsuit Amanjit Kaur; New York State Senator Bill Perkins; Tom DeMott of the Coalition to Preserve Community; Nellie Bailey of the Harlem Tenants Association; Luis Tejada of the Mirabal Sisters; Walter South of Community Board 9; Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn; Mike Elmendorf, the New York Director of the National Federation of Independent Business; and Christina Walsh, IJ’s director of activism and coalitions. The diverse group of concerned activists and property owners from across Harlem and New York City and State implored the New York Court of Appeals to bring an end to the abuse of eminent domain in New York, and pledged to continue fighting until every home, business, church and farm owner is able to keep the property they’ve worked so hard to own.

Another Victory for Property Owners

Property owners scored another victory on Wednesday night! This time the celebration was in Auburn, N.Y. Local residents cheered enthusiastically and one property owner even wept for joy when the Auburn Industrial Development Agency voted unanimously against using eminent domain to forcibly seize private property to give to Pioneer Companies—a private developer who wanted to build a Hilton Garden Inn and conference center in town.[1]

City Mayor Michael Quill argued a few months ago that while the project may be detrimental to a few individuals, the $11 million hotel would greatly “benefit” the city—benefit the city’s coffers, that is. According to the developer, the project would have boosted tax revenue by up to $160,000.[2]

The local property owners, Renee and Doug Ward, Michael Kazanivsky, and Hi Jiang, had told Pioneer Companies they did not wish to sell, and the community stood behind them. Yet, under incredible duress from the threat of seizure, some of the property owners did reach agreements with the developer, believing their fight was lost.[3] At the same time, they organized rallies and spoke to the media about the city’s abuse of eminent domain.

The situation received extensive media coverage both locally and nationally, and the Castle Coalition appeared with the Wards on Fox News, FoxNews.com and a popular talk radio program.

In the end, the public pressure was too much for the Auburn Industrial Development Agency. Eminent domain is never good for the city or property owners. The Castle Coalition is glad that the city of Auburn now agrees.

[1] Eric Shawn, “Eminent Domain Defeated,” Fox News, May 6, 2010 at Live Shots Blog.
[2] Scott Rapp, “In Auburn, individual rights clash with ‘the greater good,’” The Post-Standard, April 5, 2010.
[3] Christopher Caskey, “Business owners talking with developers,” The Citizen, April 8, 2010.

Victory in San Pablo

The San Pablo City Council voted Monday night to ban the use of eminent domain in San Pablo! The city was considering a proposal to re-authorize the use of eminent domain within two giant redevelopment areas covering an estimated 95% of the city.

San Pablo Against Eminent Domain, the group of local property owners opposed to eminent domain abuse, have held rallies before the last two public hearings urging the council to reject the proposal that would put their homes, businesses and churches on the chopping block. Members of the group also presented their objections against eminent domain and the blighting of their properties at the hearings (a critical step in California that ensures the owners maintain some of their rights in court).

The Castle Coalition read about this controversy in the news and reached out to the property owners. Christina Walsh, IJ’s director of activism and coalitions, traveled to San Pablo to speak at a community meeting of concerned citizens, where over 60 people attended. At this meeting, the group formed San Pablo Against Eminent Domain, to present a united front against the city’s ill-conceived and over-reaching proposal. The group continued to meet, organize, make noise and grow in the ensuing weeks.

At the last hearing, the city announced it would postpone a vote on the proposal to an undetermined future date. Responding to continued pressure from the grassroots group, Councilman Morris presented a resolution calling for a ban on eminent domain on Monday, which was approved unanimously with one abstention.

Local property owner Olivia Liou said, “When Council member Paul Morris motioned to vote no to eminent domain, the crowd exploded with cheering and clapping! One after another council member agreed, leading to 4 ayes and 1 abstention. And that has made history in our little town of some 30,000+ residents, mostly blue-collar, many from a Latino background. No attorney, no lawsuits, just the people.”

Another property owner, Margaret Judkins, agreed with Ms. Liou. “It was truly a community effort that convinced the City Council to not reestablish eminent domain. Most importantly, it was our hard work in proving that the city blight survey is severely incorrect, making our city look 94% blight when it is not.”

Local property owners are relieved and overjoyed that the city will not have the power to take what they have worked so hard to own for the next four years.

Visions of Eminent Domain in St. Louis

By Lancee H. Kurcab

For the past five years Paul McKee, chairman of McEagle Properties, has been secretly buying parcels of property in the redevelopment area of north St. Louis, using holding companies as a way to hide his intentions from local residents.[1]  He now owns 882 properties, totaling 116 acres, and is now looking to the city of St. Louis to help him acquire an astounding 2,400 properties.

 
Not only does he want the city to help him acquire some of the properties by eminent domain, but he also wants the city to help him finance his project. McKee has only secured $27.6 million in private loans. He is counting on the city giving him $410 million in financing