Paving One Man

Often, it’s the memories that make the home—39 years of them for Peter and Frances Dennis of Tinley Park, Illinois. Peter purchased his single-family, turn-of-the-century castle while earning just a few dollars per hour as a mechanic. The couple raised their two children there, a perfect location close to their schools, train station and church.

“All I want to do is stay in my home, I worked so hard for this place. I worked at O’Hare Airport for 16 years, traveling over 40 miles each way. If I wanted to move, I would have moved then.”

And, it is a home they have made their own. In the basement, Peter’s extensive tool collection sits across from the sewing area where Frances quilts. Their garden blooms with dozens of plants, many of them cultivated by seeds they planted over the decades. In the spring, they even preserve crops for the winter months. The same framed structure that stood as a 30-year old mechanic’s American Dream in the 1960s reflects the character of the family that continues to call it home.

Only one problem—City officials are poised to seize and bulldoze the Dennis’ treasured home, abusing the government’s power of eminent domain, so a private developer can build a 600-space parking garage for a new cinema.

“All I want to do is stay in my home,”[1] Peter said. “I worked so hard for this place. I worked at O’Hare Airport for 16 years, traveling over 40 miles each way. If I wanted to move, I would have moved then.”

Peter even has a solution, one that accounts for the City’s economic development goals while simultaneously respecting his fundamental right to keep what he and his wife have owned and maintained for decades. It turns out the City owns a 3.5-acre vacant plot of land located just across the street from the proposed $65 million development funded by L&H Real Estate Group of Chicago.

“I asked, ‘Why don’t you build the parking lot there?’ They told me that piece of property is far too valuable to build a parking lot,” Peter said, adding, “Wait a minute, my home is valuable. I don’t know how long I’m going to live, I just want to enjoy it.”

It is not just their home facing the government’s wrecking ball. The Dennises own another house next door, where their son lived for several years.

“I asked, ‘Why don’t you build the parking lot there?’ They told me that piece of property is far too valuable to build a parking lot,” Peter said, adding, “Wait a minute, my home is valuable. I don’t know how long I’m going to live, I just want to enjoy it.”

Instead, City officials are moving forward with plans for an 11-screen movie theater, 110 high-end condos and 60,000 square feet of retail space at North Street and Oak Park Avenue. And the Dennis family’s small, hard-earned place on Earth? “They’re taking our home for parking spaces,” Peter said. “It’s just not fair.”

Meanwhile, the Illinois Legislature is one of 47 states to introduce, consider or pass legislation aiming to curb eminent domain abuse since the U.S. Supreme Court decided Kelo v. City of New London last summer. But the proposed bills currently being considered in the Prairie State contain such gaping loopholes and exceptions that an abuse as egregious as Tinley Park’s threatened condemnation of the Dennis’ home would likely still be permissible under law.

When asked by the Chicago Tribune whether the City would consider drafting an alternative plan that would allow Peter and Frances to keep their home, Assistant Village Manager Mike Mertens said, “The main option we are looking at is to try and acquire their property.”[2]

Nationwide, hardworking Americans such as Peter Dennis continue to face eminent domain for private profit—people who want nothing more than to enjoy their retirement in their beloved homes.

“I planted a garden, I have got my trees. Money is not the object,” Peter said. “All my memories are in this house. It’s just so sad that I may have to leave.”

Let’s hope the City changes course before it is too late so that Peter and Frances can continue to call the 6600 block of 173rd Street home.


[1] Note: All quotations of Peter Dennis are from a telephone interview by Justin Gelfand conducted April 17, 2006.

[2] Jo Napolitano, “Tinley house sits in the path of $65 million development: A plan for condos, shops and a parking lot could take away a couple’s longtime home,” Chicago Tribune, Apr. 14, 2006.

If the Tide is Changing in San Jose, Enact it into Law

The San Jose Redevelopment Agency—California’s largest government entity with eminent domain powers and one of the nation’s worst abusers of eminent domain for private profit—pledged last week that it would not condemn single-family homes as part of its Strong Neighborhood Initiative program.  The $45 million government initiative has funded 95 projects 19 neighborhoods since its launch in 2002.  The Agency said nothing about whether it would continue to condemn multi-family residences, small businesses, agricultural land or places of worship for the benefit of private developers.[1]

   
 

San Jose even went so far as declaring a beautiful home “blighted” because it had wet leaves on its private tennis court.

   

“We understand that people may fear that their homes will somehow be taken through eminent domain for commercial purposes…. We want to assure our residents that it won’t happen,”[2] said executive director Harry Mavrogenes, whose agency recently designated Naglee Park—a neighborhood of million-dollar homes—and approximately 20 other downtown areas as “blighted,” giving it the authority to use eminent domain for private use under California Law.[3]  Reflective of California’s broad and sweeping “blight” statutes,[4] San Jose even went so far as declaring a beautiful home “blighted” because it had wet leaves on its private tennis court.

The Redevelopment Agency’s pledge carries with it symbolic authority, but it is not legally binding.  That is one of the reasons why it is crucial that the city council heeds the RDA’s call to “reconfirm its practice to not use eminent domain authority for any single-family, owner-occupied properties in the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative Project Area.”[5]  The council is scheduled to consider the request at a meeting on May 2, 2006.

If San Jose is genuinely committed to stopping eminent domain abuse within its borders, the City should go the distance and enact an ordinance prohibiting the transfer of all private property, not just single-family residential properties, from one person to another private party—something municipalities in the Golden State and nationwide have increasingly done since the U.S. Supreme Court’s outrageous decision in Kelo v. City of New London last summer.  For example, Anaheim passed Policy Directive 220, which forbids the use of eminent domain for private economic development.[6]

Meanwhile, the few remaining defenders of eminent domain abuse—typically developers, local officials and others who stand to gain from the practice—have successfully unleashed their lobbyists into the legislative halls of Sacramento and stalled meaningful eminent domain reform in one of the states that needs it most. 

That is particularly unfortunate, because California, which has more than 350 redevelopment agencies with eminent domain powers, is exceptionally prone to eminent domain for private profit; news reports over the past few months indicate 33 different projects involving condemnation for private use, and thousands of honest citizens are fighting tooth and nail to keep the beloved homes and small businesses they already rightfully own.

Let’s hope the San Jose RDA really is committed to economic development without eminent domain, and that City officials pen a real commitment against eminent domain abuse into law.  All citizens in San Jose and throughout the state deserve protection from the government’s wrecking ball—and it’s time the City acknowledges that in the most meaningful way: through its actions.


[1] Timothy Roberts, “San Jose RDA pledges not to use eminent domain,” Silicon Valley / San Jose Business Journal, April 14, 2006.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Christine Pelisek, “Blight makes right?” LA Weekly, July 1, 2005, at 15.

[4] See Cal. Health & Safety Code 33000 et seq. (Deering 2001).

[5] Timothy Roberts, “San Jose RDA pledges not to use eminent domain,” Silicon Valley / San Jose Business Journal, April 14, 2006.

[6] “Putting freedom into words; Anaheim City Council bans the use of eminent domain for improper purposes,” Orange County Register, Nov. 22, 2004.

Cleveland Plans to Flatten the Flats

The site of Cleveland’s first industry, a corn-alcohol contraption producing 2 quarts a day in the late-eighteenth century, is now the site of one of the most clear-cut abuses of eminent domain nationwide.  Yet, it is industry, city officials say, that developer Scott Wolstein’s envisioned $230-million residential and commercial redevelopment project, including a luxury boat marina, will spark—despite the fact that the City is kicking out thriving businesses against the will of the owners.[1]

   
 

The question is not whether development has the potential to bring new energy to the historic neighborhood; it is whether that possibility is reason enough to take people’s beloved homes and businesses from them through the government’s power of eminent domain.

   

Slated to seize and bulldoze 21 properties on the east bank of the Flats—a section of Cleveland along the Cuyahoga River—the proposed project depends on $87-million in public subsidies from federal, state and local grants.[2]  This week, the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority confirmed its intent to engage in eminent domain abuse by voting to condemn any property for which so-called negotiations fail.[3]  The Cleveland City Council also gave its stamp of approval for the project and the use of eminent domain to acquire properties within the designated redevelopment area.[4]  But small business owners in the area say they want to keep their slices of the American Dream.

Since 1960, Carl Barricelli has accumulated 30 acres of riverfront land for his family-owned Ontario Stone Corp, an aggregate supplier of stone for Cleveland’s parks, among other customers.  The City’s threats to condemn his property are particularly damaging because ships unload materials for his business in the area the developer plans to take.  Tony George, who owns several buildings on the East Bank including the Heaven & Earth dance clubs, passionately maintains that despite the City’s claims, business is not dead—the area simply attracts a predominantly nighttime clientele.[5]  Samsel Supply owner Mike Samsel said, “We’d lose our business.  We’d be out of business.  We’d lose 50 jobs right off the bat.”[6]  Samsel sells tools and hardware to its clientele.

In October 2005, the City designated the Flats as “blighted,” a designation easily abused under Ohio’s notoriously egregious urban renewal laws and Cleveland’s own “blight” statutes.  Ordinary neighborhoods can be considered “blighted” under the state’s broad and sweeping laws that define “blight.”  In Lakewood, for example, City officials designated beautiful homes as “blighted” because many of them did not have two full bathrooms, three bedrooms and two-car garages.  That’s why it’s not surprising that City inspectors say 19 of the 23 buildings in the Flats area are in “substandard” condition, as are 3 of the 7 parking lots.  The City is ignoring that many of the buildings are historic, and home to bustling mom-and-pop businesses.

Wolstein, to whom the City essentially has rented its eminent domain powers, made the situation as clear as it is immoral.  He said, “We’ll negotiate with [the owners] and see if we can work it out, and if we can’t, [we can] resort to eminent domain.”  In other words, he will simply take people’s property if they do not agree to sell.  Not to mention the fact that Wolstein already owns approximately 70 percent of the proposed 20-acre development site—more than enough land to build.[7]

The situation in the Flats brings attention to the unholy alliance between land-hungry developers and tax-hungry city officials.  The question is not whether development has the potential to bring new energy to the historic neighborhood; it is whether that possibility is reason enough to take people’s beloved homes and businesses from them through the government’s power of eminent domain.  The answer, in moral and constitutional terms, is unambiguously no.  That is why it is particularly important for Ohio to enact eminent domain reform that tackles the state’s broad and sweeping blight language and protects homes, businesses, places of worship and farms from being taken for private profit. 

Fortunately, many of the property owners facing the government’s wrecking ball are standing up for their fundamental right to keep what they already rightfully own.  After all, the Flats was built through private investment without governmental interference—and it is sure to continue if the government backs down from its abuse of eminent domain.


[1] Brian Albrecht, “The Flats’ east bank again looks to revival,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, Feb. 26, 2006.

[2] Sarah Hollander and Christopher Montgomery, “Port authority to make offers on Flats properties,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, Dec. 17, 2005.

[3] Sarah Hollander, “Eminent-domain threat solidifies in Flats project,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, Apr. 22, 2006.

[4] Sarah Hollander, “Council approves Wolstein’s Flats project,” Plain Dealer, Apr. 25, 2006, at B1.

[5] Christopher Montgomery, “Wolstein family mission: Rebuild Flats the right way,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 15, 2005, at A1.

[6] “Flats developer meets opposition from property owners,” NewsNet5, Oct. 7, 2005.

[7] Sarah Hollander and Christopher Montgomery, “Port authority to make offers on Flats properties,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, Dec. 17, 2005.

Long Beach Church Defeats Eminent Domain Abuse

When Long Beach, Calif., announced its plans in March 2006 to seize and bulldoze the Filipino Baptist Fellowship, a vibrant congregation in the heart of Southern California, to make way for condominiums, congregation member Jovine Agustine said, “Every day, the young kids pray that this church would not fall.”[1]

The children got their wish—and the Church got justice, as the City finally scrapped its condemnation plans in response to overwhelming public outcry and pending legal action.  Prevailing against a land-hungry developer teaming up with tax-hungry city officials, all of whom sought to condemn the house of worship on the grounds that it did not generate enough taxes for the City, the Church reigned victorious in a case that no doubt will show eminent domain abusers nationwide how much Americans oppose eminent domain for private profit.

“They revoked their condemnation authority,” said John C. Eastman, Director of the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence at the Claremont Institute and lead attorney for Filipino Baptist.  “This means that at least for now, the matter is over.”

On March 13, the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency approved the use of eminent domain to acquire the church and replace it with high-end condominiums.  Having already designated the area in which the church is located as “blighted,” the City moved forward with escalating threats of eminent domain in an effort to scare the church into selling. 

Pastor Roem Agustine said, “We’re just resting on the promise of the Lord that he will not leave us nor forsake us.”[2]  Instead of selling, the congregation decided to launch a legal and political battle, garnering local and national media attention immediately. 

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court’s now infamous decision in Kelo v. City of New London permitted the use of eminent domain for economic development as a valid “public use” as long as the proposed condemnation simply presented the possibility of increased tax-revenue or job-growth.  Since then, a number of religious leaders have found the government and its wrecking ball at their doorsteps—capitalizing on the fact that churches (and all non-profits) are tax-exempt. 

In response to overwhelming public outcry, the City’s redevelopment authorities decided in a closed meeting to back down from their threats of condemnation, voting on March 27, 2006, to adopt a motion terminating negotiations with the Church.  After further confirmation, Eastman said that this binds the City to the position that it no longer has the authority to condemn the Church for this redevelopment project—meaning the Church is safe for now.

However, Filipino Baptist remains in the City’s designated redevelopment area, where numerous homes, small businesses and other houses of worship remain at risk of eminent domain abuse.  The Church itself can be condemned if the City once again initiates its public procedures for condemnation from scratch.  While this seems unlikely given the City’s recent stand, the only sure protection for houses of worship, non-profits and perfectly fine homes and small businesses remains legislative reform

This situation underscores just how important it is for Long Beach to pass a local ordinance prohibiting the private-to-private transfer of land through the use of eminent domain.  It is also crucial for California to reform its statewide eminent domain laws, which allow for ordinary neighborhoods such as this community in Long Beach to be designated as “blighted” and therefore subject to condemnation. 

Read more on eminent domain abuse against places of worship.


[1] Erin Roach, “City moves to condemn SBC church using eminent domain,” Baptist Press, Mar. 9, 2006.

[2] Ibid.

City Officials Destroy Man

In the spring of 1979, the Soviet Army destroyed nine-year-old Ahmad Mesdaq’s family home in Afghanistan. With his parents and infant brother, he fled to the United States—away from coercive governmental abuse in his homeland, straight to the land of opportunity.

In 1994, Ahmad leased a storefront on Fifth Avenue in San Diego, California. Here, he would launch his American Dream, an elegant cigar and coffee lounge called the Gran Havana. Six years later, the small business entrepreneur purchased a building on the corner of Fifth Avenue and J Street, and he renovated the property in April 2002. Stylish and chic, the new Gran Havana Cigar and Coffee Lounge opened its 8,000 square foot corner location in March 2003, three blocks from the Padre’s new baseball stadium.

The thriving Gran Havana cafe in San Diego, California, immediately prior to the City's decision to condemn it for the benefit of another private business.

By 2003, Ahmad had established a thriving neighborhood business in the heart of San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.

“I spent over nine years trying to buy the ideal location for my business…. This place is perfect. It’s right near the new ballpark and is a corner building that has a lot of exposure to the street,” he said in a 2004 interview.[1]

Gran Havana soon became a bustling small business and more. The café supported himself, his family, his parents, his brother, and even provided Ahmad with enough revenue to put his sister through school. In every sense of the word, it was a true investment for the future—and that’s why he sunk millions of dollars into the building to develop the perfect atmosphere.

That all changed in April 2004, when the City Council, which acts as the City’s redevelopment agency, voted 8-1 to condemn Ahmad’s property—his livelihood—for that most traditional of American public uses: a Marriott Hotel.

Within a matter of minutes, Ahmad decided to take his fight to the courts of law and public opinion. The idea that his dream could be taken by the City and handed over to another private party was “humiliating and frustrating,”[2] and he would not sit passively by while the City bulldozed everything for which he had worked.

Throughout the next year, Ahmad became one of California’s most celebrated eminent domain fighters—a man who never chose to become an activist. He is an ordinary citizen, who wants nothing more than to keep a business he already owns and so deeply cherishes.

Ahmad’s clash with the City was never about dollars and cents. He waged a political and legal battle that gained national media attention well before the U.S. Supreme Court worsened the situation nationwide when it decided Kelo. v. City of New London.

“Are you for sale? Is your hard work, integrity and achievement for sale?” Mesdaq said in April 2004. “Mine is not for sale. It’s not about greed. Even if you gave me $10 million, I don’t want it.”[3]

Sadly, courts and lawmakers failed to protect his business from the government’s wrecking ball, ordering him to vacate in June 2005. Days later, city-hired construction crews bulldozed the beautiful and elegant Gran Havana to the ground—paving the way for the luxury Marriott.

The government's wrecking ball destroys the Gran Havana, and everything in its path.

In October 2005, a San Diego jury awarded Mesdaq $7.7 million for his corner property.

His response: “The verdict is what it is. But I wish we had never had to come this far. I love the Gaslamp. I love San Diego. I just want to work.”[4]

As of May 2006, it appears that Mesdaq’s business was taken and demolished for nothing—at least nothing more than the parking lot that’s currently occupying the corner of Fifth and J.

Ahmad’s dispute is sadly reflective of controversies nationwide, where thriving small businesses are seized by the government, razed, and handed over to other private parties. His story should serve as a classic reminder that hard work and achievement cannot always justly be replaced with a wad of cash. That’s why the Castle Coalition provides support and resources for home and business owners throughout the country who have chosen not to sell their beloved properties and are resisting forced government condemnations for private development.

On this San Diego corner, tax-hungry city councilmen and a land-hungry wealthy hotel chain teamed up to destroy an honest man’s American Dream.

As he said after he received the verdict, “I hope, someday, I will have the ability to come back to the Gaslamp.”[5] Let’s hope he does.

The land on which the Gran Havana stood is currently being used as a parking lot.


[1] Miguel San Jose, “A battle with city hall: An imminent decision awaits a local eminent domain case,” San Diego Lawyer, November/December 2004.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jonathan Heller, “Council OKs hotel to replace cigar lounge in Gaslamp Quarter,” San Diego Union-Tribune, April 1, 2004, at B4.

[4] Greg Moran, “Jury gives man forced from store $7.7 million,” San Diego Union-Tribune, Oct. 29, 2005.

[5] Ibid.

American Dream Denied

When Jerry Lee and his family fled Cambodia in 1975, losing their grocery store and tailor shop to the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, he first escaped to Thailand and then moved to the United States—a nation where citizens have the ability to keep what they’ve worked hard to own. For Jerry, and his wife Lee (another Cambodian refugee whom he met in Bridgeport, Conn.), the American Dream manifested itself as Stewart’s Liquor, a small shop they purchased in 1988 in a Southern California strip mall called California Square.

That is why it came as such a surprise to the Lees that the City of Riverside served the hardworking couple an eviction notice in May 2006. Maxi Foods and the City—which has acquired half of California Square including the Lees’ store through eminent domain—plan to redevelop the 7-acre shopping center.

“I tell my kids work hard, and then when you grow up, you won’t have to work like mommy,”[1] said Lee Lee, who works 15-hour shifts, 7 days a week. She supports her four children, two of whom are students in the University of California system.

But, as she has sadly learned the hard way, it’s no longer the case in the United States that the government will respect your property rights.

In August 2005, the City first threatened to take the Lees’ property against their will by eminent domain, kicking them out for the benefit of other business owners. In May 2006, less than one year later, tax-hungry city officials did just that, evicting them from a store that is not only geographically significant for business reasons, but also for personal reasons. They shuttle their 11-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son to and from school very near their old location.

Lee Lee said, “I don’t know what to do…. All my dreams have disappeared.”[2]

As if getting evicted for no other reason other than somebody else wants their land and has more political clout is not bad enough, the Planning Commission denied them a permit for a new location in a second commercial center. Another liquor store, day-care center, church and apartment building are near there, and the City says the Lees’ store would be too close.

Instead, after taking their store by force, Riverside officials provided the Lees with a list of vacant stores. But the Lees say those were either too far for the customer-base they have built up over almost two decades in business or simply too small.

Meanwhile, the couple’s appeal to the Riverside City Council just to obtain a permit for their new location of choice will be considered, but only after they pack up their store, place their belongings in storage, and move out.

As this situation emphasizes, eminent domain abuse does not just affect property; it affects people—honest, hardworking citizens who simply want to keep what they own.

Find out more information about eminent domain abuse in California.


[1] Joan Osterwalder, “Refugees Again; Shopkeepers must move out of their store,” Press Enterprise (Riverside, CA), May 13, 2006, at B1.

[2] Ibid.

Herculean Abuse of Eminent Domain

It may take Hercules to stop a Wal-Mart, but it is much less heroic when the showdown involves eminent domain abuse. In an unusual twist on the usual David vs. Goliath eminent domain battle, the City of Hercules, Calif., proved in May 2006 that not even the nation’s big-box store giant could successfully fend off the government’s use of eminent domain to take its property and hand it over to another private developer. According to Hercules Community Development Director Steve Lawton, the unanimous vote to condemn 17 acres owned by Wal-Mart was an effort “to ward off urban blight.” Apparently, Wal-Mart’s characteristic promise of taxes and jobs, created in this case through private negotiation and not government force, was not an acceptable option.

“This resolution means that government agencies can use the really awesome power of eminent domain merely because they don’t like the property owner’s land use application or the property owner,” said Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Lostcoff. “It would mean there’s virtually no limit on government’s ability to take private property through eminent domain.”

“This resolution means that government agencies can use the really awesome power of eminent domain merely because they don’t like the property owner’s land use application or the property owner,” said Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Lostcoff. “It would mean there’s virtually no limit on government’s ability to take private property through eminent domain.”

Wal-Mart further said it would challenge the condemnation through the courts, emphasizing the City’s use of force simply to preference one developer over another.

The land in question is the site of a former dynamite factory that officials seek to transform into a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood with small shops. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., which purchased the property and proceeded to submit three development proposals of its own to City Hall, hoped to build a 100,000 square-food store, a pedestrian plaza, and two outdoor eating areas. The company said it would present a “villagelike” atmosphere.

But sadly, the City did exactly what the U.S. Supreme Court signed off on when it decided Kelo v. City of New London in June 2005. Hercules officials decided to simply take the property by eminent domain, justifying it on the grounds that the government can take people’s homes, businesses, places of worship or farms if somebody else wants to do something with the land that’s more preferable—or more profitable, as was the case in Kelo. While the pretext for the taking is the elimination of so-called “blight,” the City is choosing its preferred developer over Wal-Mart, despite the fact that Wal-Mart already owns the property.

This situation emphasizes that literally nobody is safe from the government’s wrecking ball. Wal-Mart is finding it difficult to protect its own property, even with the ability to unleash its seemingly endless army of lawyers on the task. But small business owners and everyday homeowners—paradoxically the same people who are often threatened by big-box stores like Wal-Mart—do not have the resources necessary to fight costly legal battles of uncertain outcome.

Wal-Mart, despite the fact that it has previously benefited from the use of eminent domain in other situations, has the fundamental right to keep land that it already rightfully owns. And, if economic development really is Hercules’ goal, the City would probably not condemn the world’s largest retailer.

Eminent domain abuse is wrong regardless of whom it victimizes. And, if the most powerful among us is not safe from abusive condemnations, the situation is much graver for those with fewer resources. That’s why it’s particularly important for the California Legislature to step up to the plate and prohibit localities from using eminent domain for private profit.

A Hollywood Blockbuster

The innocent often find themselves defenseless against the big and powerful forces that have been aligned against them—except in Hollywood blockbusters. But a recent victory over eminent domain abuse in Hollywood, Fla., is a testament to the fact that good can prevail over darker forces, even off the screen.

In the 1970s, George Mach immigrated to Florida from Hungary in pursuit of the American Dream. His property had been illegitimately seized twice before, first by the Nazis, and then one year later, by the Hungarian communist regime. America, he believed, would finally protect his liberty and fundamental right to private property. So he and his wife Katalin purchased a 2,900-square-foot building in Hollywood for a beauty salon. The small business prospered, and the Machs ultimately decided to lease the property to many other small business owners for more than 30 years. George Mach was living the Dream he came to America to pursue.

That is, until Hollywood Mayor Mara Giulianti and developer Charles “Chip” Abele, showing blatant disrespect for individual rights, unveiled their plans to forcibly take the Machs’ family property and replace it with a private development. In 2004, before the U.S. Supreme Court’s outrageous decision in Kelo v. City of New London and the subsequent meaningful, comprehensive eminent domain reform enacted by Florida this year, the Hollywood city commission signed a contract with Abele agreeing to condemn property on his behalf if the developer could not convince George Mach to sell. In essence, the City rented away its power of eminent domain to a private developer—giving him the power to acquire somebody else’s land for his own gain.

Mach fought tooth and nail, sadly passing away during negotiations. His son, David, resumed George’s fight, steadfastly refusing to desecrate his father’s memory manifested by the castle his father owned and cherished. As David so bluntly said, “Not everyone can be bought.”[1]

The City, however, ignored David’s pleas, arguing that it had an obligation—and a desire—to honor the contract it signed with Abele in 2004. In June 2005, the City began eminent domain proceedings to convert the property into a 19-story condo and retail tower. So David, who attended the Castle Coalition’s national conference last year, took his fight to the courts of law and public opinion.

In June 2006, the Mach family prevailed. The judge ruled that the City could simply build around the Mach property, and that it was therefore unnecessary to condemn it.

In the wake of the ruling, Abele says he hopes to resume negotiations—and to do what he should have done all along: attempt to acquire the property through private negotiation, not government force. But David Mach, having successfully triumphed over a tax-hungry city bureaucracy and a wealthy, land-hungry developer, has had enough. His victory over eminent domain abuse is a victory for property owners across the nation—people who want nothing more than the fundamental right to keep what they already rightfully own. As David said, “You can’t try to bully people and then when it doesn’t go your way just try to throw a pile of money at them.”[2]

But in this true Hollywood story, the villain just does not seem to get it. Mayor Giulianti said, “I just don’t want to see Chip up his offer to the Machs, because it sends a message to property owners that they can demand whatever they want from developers.”[3] The Mach family, and the owner of every home, small business, farm and place of worship across the country, has every right to sell or choose not to sell their property as they wish. The mayor’s unbridled arrogance underscores just how important the Mach family’s victory over eminent domain abuse is. It is a reminder to government officials that the threat of eminent domain is itself a violation of property rights; after all, if the City could simply condemn Mach’s property once so-called negotiations failed, the negotiations themselves become obsolete.

“This just shows that a lot of people unified can stand up to a bully, to a government that they don’t think is doing the right thing,” said David Mach.

In this Hollywood blockbuster, the right certainly prevailed over the wrong.


[1] Shannon O’Boye, “Hollywood moves to seize woman’s storefronts so developer can build condos,” The Sun-Sentinel, June 22, 2005.

[2] Michael Mayo, “Hollywood’s loss a towering win for common sense,” The Sun-Sentinel, June 25, 2006.

[3] John Holland, “Hollywood loses eminent domain fight,” The Sun-Sentinel, June 23, 2006.

Conflict of Interest?

New Jersey is one of only three states in the nation where state legislators can simultaneously serve as local elected officials—one possible explanation for why the Garden State has struggled to enact meaningful eminent domain reform in the wake of Kelo, according to a study released by the New Jersey Policy Perspective. Federal office holders are prohibited from holding another elected position while serving and 36 states have explicit legal bans on the practice known as “double-dipping.”[1]

The report (titled “One to a Customer: The Democratic Downsides of Dual Office Holding”) revealed that, of the 120 state lawmakers in New Jersey, 20 hold another elected office—not including appointed, tax-paid positions held by more than 20 others.[2] When it comes to eminent domain reform, it is particularly remarkable that one-third (4 of 12) of the legislators currently serving on two committees considering eminent domain reform are mayors.[3] In fact, Assemblyman John Burzichelli is the mayor of Paulsboro and State Sen. Ronald Rice is a current Newark councilman and former deputy mayor. They are the two legislators sponsoring recent legislation that purports to stop the abuse of eminent domain without actually accomplishing that objective.

Since Kelo, every public opinion poll has revealed that Americans overwhelmingly oppose the abuse of eminent domain. Typically, the only people lobbying to protect eminent domain for private use are local officials, planners and developers—the same people who stand to gain from the practice.

Eminent domain “is affected by dual office holding,” said Tom O’Neil, who authored the report.[4]

The abuse of eminent domain in New Jersey is well-acknowledged and recognized, but as is the case in many states across the nation, legislative efforts to reform condemnation laws have met with resistance from the influential minority fighting to protect its power. This obstacle is only exacerbated when the same state legislators burdened with the task of limiting what municipal officials can do are also the politicians holding the highest local offices. Essentially, they are in a position to curb their own power—and that is less likely to occur, according to the study.[5]

Since Kelo, legislators in 47 states have introduced, considered or passed eminent domain reform, and more than half the governors have signed legislation into law. If New Jersey is serious about doing what the U.S. Supreme Court failed to do in Kelo—stopping the abuse of eminent domain—it’s time legislators set aside their personal agendas and respond to the demands of their constituents with meaningful reform—even when it means limiting their own municipal powers.


[1] “Advocates demanding end to double-dipping,” The Star Ledger, June 16, 2006.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Gregory J. Volpe, “Report cites conflict of holding 2 offices,” Gannett State Bureau, June 16, 2006.

[4] Gregory J. Volpe, “Citing eminent-domain conflict, report urges ban on dual-office legislators,” Gannett State Bureau, June 16, 2006.

[5] “Advocates demanding end to double-dipping,” The Star Ledger, June 16, 2006.

Stopping the Bulldozers

Grand Terrace. O, Terrace, my Terrace a small town with heart; so lovely, so lively, a city apart. With people who love you, who make up your core, And leaders who guide you, protect you, and more.[1]

Sadly, as Grand Terrace, Calif., homeowner Jo Stringfield recently discovered, the City’s traditional poem is only half true.

Jo Stringfield has fought against all odds to keep the childhood castle she loves from City Manager Tom Schwab and Assistant City Manager Steve Berry. These two threatened to take Stringfield’s home by eminent domain—using a blight designation dating back to 1979 that declares every home, business and place of worship within city limits as “blighted.” Never mind the more than 25 years of progress since then. Under California law, municipalities can condemn private property for private use as long as the property has been designated as “blighted” under the state’s broad and sweeping blight language, statutes that leave perfectly fine properties such as Stringfield’s up for grabs. Indeed, Grand Terrace’s permissible use of an ancient blight study underscores just how little protection the law actually provides.

Stringfield’s modest residence on two acres is not just any house. It’s her childhood home, nestled in one of Southern California’s charming bedroom communities near San Bernardino. It’s a place she spent her spare time as a child riding horses in nearby Blue Mountain. If nothing else, it’s certainly not what people would describe as “blighted.”

Grand Terrace is known to many as the Blue Mountain City, celebrated for its peaceful atmosphere, beautiful neighborhoods, high performing schools, safe streets and surrounding mountain scenery. But, apparently, that is just not enough for city officials, politicians so hungry for taxes that they were willing to go to extreme measures to facilitate private development. So City officials joined together with a private developer to build Town Center, a proposed shopping complex anchored by a Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse and a Stater Bros. Supermarket. Only the City did not own the property. Homeowners like Jo Stringfield did.

With the threat of eminent domain, the City acquired nearly 20 acres of private property. But a committed activist refused to bow to the government’s abusive threats of eminent domain. Stringfield stuck it out, firmly stating, “The bottom line is that I own the property.”[2]

In 2004, Stringfield received a letter from a real estate agent asking her to sell her home, which, following her mother’s death in 2002, she had recently moved back into with her boyfriend Matt Fleming. She was not interested in selling; it is a home she loves and adores, so she threw out the letter. That year, she received many more letters, and when she received one from a developer, she got nervous and filed the letter away. Developer Jacobsen Family Holdings LLC, along with City officials, began to make extravagant offers, but she continued to inform them of her decision not to sell.

“What they want to do is put up a shopping center on my property,” Stringfield said. “At that point, I realized I needed an attorney.”

With eminent domain looming in the background, Stringfield was galvanized to action. She started to research the issue on the Internet, consulted with a local attorney and investigated her rights as a homeowner. She is an activist by necessity, not by choice—a woman who merely wants to save her home from the government’s wrecking ball.

With the support of the Castle Coalition, she began a grassroots battle. She circulated petitions and hosted rallies with “Hands Off My Home” and “Hands Off My Business” signs. She even went so far as submitting her own redevelopment plan, in which she proposed more of what the community wanted—smaller businesses, room for trees and parking, lighter offices with lofts and, most importantly, no eminent domain for private use.

In response to her grassroots activism and increasing public outcry against eminent domain abuse, Lowe’s pulled out of the project and, in April 2006, the City council tabled its proposed abuse of eminent domain.

It appears Jo Stringfield has successfully saved her home from eminent domain abuse, though Californians still need meaningful protection against eminent domain for private profit. Since the U.S. Supreme Court decided Kelo v. City of New London last year, legislators in 47 states introduced, considered or passed legislation aiming to limit eminent domain. More than 20 governors signed reform into law, but the California Legislature has still failed to pass eminent domain reform.

Fortunately, activists throughout the Golden State share Jo Stringfield’s commitment to property rights.

Emphasizing that she is not planning to wave a white flag anytime soon, she said, “It’s not right to take somebody’s home and give it to someone else for them to make money off of it.”[3]


[1] Thomas Federich Teorey, “City Poem,” City Poem & Song, City of Grand Terrace, Calif. (available at http://www.cityofgrandterrace.org/about_city/poem_song.html).

[2] Jo Stringfield, Telephone Interview with Justin Gelfand (Institute for Justice), March 2006.

[3] Ibid.