Bring Out the Wrecking Ball, Columbia Says

It was at King’s College, now Columbia University, that many of America’s most influential founding fathers were in some way influenced to fight for the liberties enshrined in the Constitution. But it appears things have changed.

In April 2004, the private, ivy league university nestled in the heart of New York City announced its plans to expand into West Harlem—a five billion dollar, five-square-block project to build a research facility, university housing and an art center, among other things. Only one problem: neither the university nor the City owns the land on which Columbia plans to build. But Columbia administrators say the university will simply use eminent domain to clear out the many existing businesses and apartment buildings that currently occupy the area.[1]

Defying the legacies of John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, Columbia University is quietly and shamelessly pushing through its plans to use eminent domain for its private gain—and it is doing so at the expense of some of the community’s hardest-working people.

Take Lawrence Greenberg, for example. He is the president of Pearlgreen Corporation, which has pumped millions of dollars into its property. The organization has weathered East Harlem’s good times and bad, and Greenberg has no desire whatsoever to leave so Columbia can destroy the industrial supply company founded by his grandparents more than 70 years ago.

He said, “We were here when there was nothing. Now, when things are finally getting better, we want to stay and be part of it.”[2]

Anne Whitman shares Greenberg’s sentiments. She owns Hudson North American Moving and Storage Company, which she learned Columbia intends to seize and bulldoze despite her telling university officials that she has no interest in selling.

“This little area of Manhattanville is a collection of immigrant families who started their businesses and are now in their third generation—it’s a beautiful thing, and Columbia wants to wipe it out.”[3]

Meanwhile, a university that ostensibly prides itself on the spread of ideas and the free flow of information has done everything possible to move forward with eminent domain abuse behind the scenes. In April 2005, university officials asked the Empire State Development Corporation, the State’s official redevelopment agency, to use eminent domain to acquire the land for Columbia’s expansion; the university offered to cover all costs of condemnation including any lawsuits that could arise.[4] Interestingly, the university’s exceptional journalism program brought this to the public’s attention—after the Columbia Daily Spectator filed a Freedom of Information Act request to acquire this information.

State law requires that there be a finding of “blight” before the university and the City can move forward with condemnations. Threats of eminent domain continue to shadow over hardworking Americans who want nothing more than to keep the land they already rightfully own—nothing more than to stop the City from using force to destroy their livelihoods just so it can benefit the politically connected private university. Meanwhile, the university has continued to navigate the City’s planning and zoning bureaucracy, hoping to raze a neighborhood that would happily coexist with Columbia.

Let’s hope Columbia changes course and walks in the footsteps of its earliest students—people who not only fought for the Constitution, but drafted it, signed it and defended it on the bench of the U.S. Supreme Court. While Columbia continues its attempts to bully hardworking Americans, local activists will not back down until the City and the university drop threats of eminent domain for private profit.


[1] Bob Roberts, “Open university; Columbia plans to expand to West Harlem; West Harlem wants to be part of the plan; Is there a way for campus and community to share the streets,” City Limits, December 2004.

[2] Bob Roberts, “Masters of their domain,” City Limits, September 27, 2004.

[3] Andrew Marks, “Six firms that won’t sell out to Columbia; Convenience, history key factors in wanting to stay in West Harlem,” Crain’s New York Business, January 17, 2005.

[4] Jacob Gershman, “Columbia expansion plans step on neighborhood toes,” New York Sun, April 21, 2005.

Playing Musical Chairs with Businesses

Since Kelo many cities are asking: Why not use eminent domain to take property from one business and give it to its competitor? 

In June 2006, City officials in Florissant, Mo., granted a private developer the power of eminent domain to take a successful British Petroleum gas station and a vacant building—so the developer can build a Shell gas station.[1]

In October 2005, the Cleveland City Council designated the East Bank of the Flats as “blighted,” giving the City the power of eminent domain so it can make way for developer Scott Wolstein to build a residential and commercial complex.  Despite proposals set forth by property owners willing to partner on the project, Wolstein insists on owning and controlling all the land.  This includes a privately owned parking lot that the City is taking so Wolstein can replace it with…a parking lot.[2]

In Port Chester, N.Y., two businessmen planned to build a CVS Pharmacy on land they owned.  Instead of letting them proceed with their proposed development, Village officials condemned their land so G&S Investors can build something else instead—a Walgreens Pharmacy, CVS’ chief regional competitor.[3] 

And, in Los Angeles, Calif., City officials condemned a thriving furniture factory ostensibly for an animal shelter.  But now the City has decided to build the animal shelter on another piece of city-owned property.  So, instead of giving it back to its original owner, the City is handing the land over to a different furniture manufacturer.[4]

The list goes on and on.  Since the U.S. Supreme Court decided Kelo v. City of New London in June 2005, tax-hungry bureaucrats and land-hungry developers are increasingly using eminent domain for private development projects.  It is wrong to take private property from one person and hand it to another, regardless of what the new owner will do with the land, but it is especially outrageous when cities use their condemnation powers to benefit one private business by taking its competitor’s land so the politically connected business can benefit.  Among other things, Kelo, which permits the use of eminent domain for economic development, opened the floodgates to these kinds of takings.

Kelo leaves businesses of all sizes without federal constitutional protection from being taken by the government and given to other businesses in the same industry.  While more than half of the states have responded with state legislative reform to stop the abuse of eminent domain, small businesses across the nation remain vulnerable to eminent domain abuse. 

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noted in her dissenting opinion, “Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz Carlton”—a hauntingly accurate prediction, though, as the Castle Coalition has seen, nicer is not always necessary.  The evidence reveals that private businesses with political influence benefit from the government’s use of eminent domain for private profit.

The only force that will stop it is strong statewide and federal legislative reform.  Only then will businesses be protected from the government’s wrecking ball.  


[1] “Developer gets power of eminent domain,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 13, 2006; Joe Scott, “Council considers eminent domain for project,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 17, 2006.

[2] Jay Miller, “Domain debate looms; As Scott Wolstein’s plan for the Flats’ East Bank picks up steam, task force debates nonelected officials’ rights to eminent domain,” Crain’s Cleveland Business, May 1, 2006, at 1; Tom Breckenridge, “Condo plan brings criticism; Planners suspect Flats landowner trying to drive up the asking price,” The Plain Dealer, May 6, 2006, at C1.

[3] Alex Philippidis, “Lawyers have eye on state eminent domain law,” Westchester County Business Journal, January 2, 2006, at 4.

[4] Patrick McGreevy, “U.S. targets L.A.’s seizure of property; A federal watchdog agency is scrutinizing the city’s condemnation of some businesses,” Los Angeles Times, June 14, 2006.

Beating the Odds

In Arvada, Colo., nothing is a done deal, especially when citizens stand against eminent domain abuse. Tom Wambolt’s property was not in jeopardy, but that did not stop him from making a big splash when Arvada’s Columbine Lake was condemned. A concerned citizen, Wambolt fought the City’s attempt to take the nearby lake by eminent domain, pave it and convert it into a truck turn-around for Wal-Mart.

The story began in 1981, when the City designated the lake and its surrounding area as “blighted,” thereby permitting the government to use eminent domain for so-called “urban renewal.” The City initiated a 25-year plan, during which the Arvada Urban Renewal Authority (AURA) would facilitate the redevelopment of a 500-acre tract of land including the beautiful lake. In the mid-1980s, developer Crow-CISI bought the lake along with an adjoining parcel of 35 acres and built Arvada Marketplace.

Subsequently, developer Parker Ojala purchased a 13-acre plot of land nearby for an office park, and later bought the lake property from Crow-CISI. The new development group built an office park and improved the lake, adding amenities such as walking paths, landscaping, picnic areas and fountains.[1]

Three years later, one of the Marketplace’s anchor tenets, Home Base, went bankrupt and closed its store. The shopping center manager, Trammell Crow, then worked with the Wal-Mart Corporation to build a superstore on the vacant property. In order to accommodate parking, Wal-Mart tried to negotiate with Parker Ojala to buy the lake. But when Ojala decided not to sell the property, Crow urged AURA to acquire the lake property through public force.

But there was a problem. AURA had already issued a certificate stating that the so-called “blight” had been cured. Now, professional planners and tax-hungry bureaucrats had decided that a “blighted lake” that the City’s redevelopment agency concluded was no longer “blighted” would better serve the community if it were filled and paved to appease Wal-Mart’s demands.

The case ultimately ended up in court. Focusing on the lake itself, the trial court ruled that since the lake had not been redeveloped, it was blighted. In other words, because Crow-CISI and Parker Ojala decided to preserve the lake for its pristine beauty rather than transforming it into a parking lot, the court stated that it ought to be taken from them.

While a court of law ruled against them, trying the case in the court of public opinion proved rather effective. Attracted by a sign to stop the Arvada Wal-Mart, Wambolt joined a group of concerned citizens and was soon elected president of the “Save Our Lake” group. He and his band of activists began examining blight studies and urban renewal plans. The “Save Our Lake” group held rallies every weekend on the street corner of the proposed Wal-Mart site and circulated petitions. Faced with cynics who believed that citizen activism could not defeat seemingly insurmountable odds, Wambolt repeated his personal mantra: “The key’s not in the door yet so it’s not a done deal. It’s not a done deal until they turn the key in the lock.”[2] Wambolt educated others about eminent domain while he investigated deeper. He bought comprehensive annual financial reports and used them to demonstrate how the development plan would cut funds from the school budgets—a strategy that helped garner public support for his group’s fight against eminent domain abuse.

The “Save Our Lake” group certainly made noise and attracted much attention, and the newly inspired Columbine Professional Plaza Association appealed the district court’s decision to the Colorado Supreme Court. Invalidating the original “blight study” from the 1980s, the state Supreme Court ruled that the City could not legally condemn the lake or its surrounding property unless or until the government conducted a new blight study—a partial victory for the property owners.[3]

Wambolt says it best: “We fought them every step of the way and that’s the way you got to do it. You can’t give up hope. Many times I woke up in the middle of the night and I said nope, the key’s not in there.”[4]

Activists fighting eminent domain abuse nationwide no doubt share Wambolt’s perseverance and commitment to protect the fundamental right of individuals to keep what they rightfully own. In Arvada and across the country, the fight against eminent domain abuse continues, a battle that will persist until the keys to homes, businesses, farms and places of worship remain where they belong—the hands of the owners.


[1] James Lawlor. “Urban Renewal Agency Cannot Take Back Land After Development,” American Planning Association, (available at http://www.planning.org/planning/member/2004jun/news.htm).

[2] Tom Wambolt, Telephone Interview Conducted by Justin Gelfand (Institute for Justice), June 19, 2006.

[3] Arvada Urban Renewal Authority v. Columbine Professional Plaza Association, Inc. et. Al, No. 03SA329. (Colorado Supreme Court, March 1, 2004).

[4] Tom Wambolt, Telephone Interview Conducted by Justin Gelfand (Institute for Justice), June 19, 2006.

When Bait and Switch Meets Eminent Domain Abuse

It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book: the trickster lures the victim with a common understanding in order to reach an agreement and later breaches the terms of the deal as he intended to do all along. Only, by that time, the pieces have already fallen into place and it’s too late to argue.

City officials across the country have put a new spin on the well-worn bait-and-switch tactic. They’re taking private property by eminent domain under the pretext that it’ll be used for public use and then giving that property to private developers as they intended to do all along. The scheme is as unjust as it is effective—and that’s the problem.

In Los Angeles, Calif., the City seized three acres from a private furniture company to construct the new South Los Angeles animal shelter, something that falls within the legal and constitutional limitations of “public use.” City officials even bought the property and financed the shelter with money raised by a bond that voters approved to expand animal services.[1]

Enter Councilman Bernard C. Parks. Through his position in public office, Parks is now attempting to sell the condemned land to Cisco Bros., which, oddly enough, is a furniture design and manufacture firm.  Parks does this all under the rhetoric that “the original proposal impairs the growth of a major economic development.” This was a plan that the Los Angeles City Council initiated and a proposal that voters approved. Vaughan Benz, a successful furniture manufacturer whose warehouses were initially taken by the City, appealed Los Angeles’ condemnation efforts in court, and lost on the simple grounds that the taking undoubtedly constituted a public use because the animal shelter would be owned and operated by the public.[2]

So what’s going to happen with the shelter? It turns out that the City already owned property one block away and, based on the Council’s own concession, never actually needed to condemn the successful furniture manufacturer’s warehouse in the first place.[3]

If Los Angeles can legally seize private property for public use (which it did) and then change its mind and give it to a developer (which it’s doing), it’s a classic situation of eminent domain abuse—the transfer of property from one private individual to another.  In addition, it gets around California’s albeit minimal restrictions against eminent domain for economic development, since there was never even the suggestion or a finding that the existing property was “blighted.” Unlike typical eminent domain abuse disputes, though, property owners are not in a position to challenge the legality of the taking until after the fact, often after the home or business has already been destroyed and the damage is already done. And there’s the rub.

Defenders of eminent domain abuse often argue that the public and political processes are sufficient to protect home and business owners from illegitimate condemnation. While this is rarely ever the case, the political process is certainly insufficient when land is taken for a public use, then becomes a private use.

Situations similar to the Los Angeles incident have occurred elsewhere. The City of Hampton, Va., for example, condemned Frank and Dana Ottofaro’s property for a road, a legitimate public use. However, two months after the land was taken, the Development Authority entered into an agreement with a commercial developer handing over the condemned property for a shopping center.[4]

Whether or not the bait-and-switch tactic is intentional is secondary to the primary distinction: Can land be taken for public use and then justifiably handed over to a private developer if the plans change? This is an issue that state legislatures have begun to tackle with recent eminent domain reform legislation, and many lawmakers favor giving the previous landowner rights of first-refusal if the public-at-large no longer uses the property.

The Castle Coalition urges legislators to crack down on this form of eminent domain abuse—especially considering that landowners have very limited ground to contest the initial condemnation in courts of law. 

As Scott Vaughn, co-owner of the furniture-manufacturing firm said, “They told us it was for one thing when it was for another…. It was definitely an abuse.”[5]


[1] Patrick McGreevy, “Land seized for animal shelter may be sold to developer-donor,” Los Angeles Times, January 14, 2006, at A1; Patrick McGreevy, “U.S. targets L.A.’s seizure of property; A federal watchdog agency is scrutinizing the city’s condemnation of some businesses,” Los Angeles Times, June 14, 2006.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See Ottofaro v. City of Hampton, 574 S.E.2d 235 (Va. 2003).

[5] Patrick McGreevy, “U.S. targets L.A.’s seizure of property; A federal watchdog agency is scrutinizing the city’s condemnation of some businesses,” Los Angeles Times, June 14, 2006.

Blaming the Homeowners

Property owners who have lived and worked in their communities their entire lives suddenly fight tooth and nail to protect their properties from so-called “redevelopment” and “revitalization.” These people put on brave faces as they seek to save their childhood homes and small businesses.

But in the development world, these folks are known impersonally and condescendingly as “holdouts,” because they allegedly threaten grandiose development plans—even though they are simply doing what every American should—asserting their rights. However, since developers have always been able to develop without resorting to eminent domain, it’s clear that the true threat comes not from a home or small business owner, but from the government that’s all too willing to use its eminent domain power to transfer property to better connected private owners.

It’s not hard to imagine a world where rights are respected and developers finish their projects without getting the government to kick people out.  It’s the world we live in, one with many examples that demonstrate that when developers tap into their own creative capacity, supposed holdouts become no problem to their development plans. When planners go back to their drawing boards, they often find that while a development may slightly change, it’s never stopped.

In the 1960s, Walt Disney purchased the 28,000-acre site of Disney World in Orlando, Fla., in secret—without the use of eminent domain. The use of secret buyers was important in order to avoid possible “holdouts” morally opposed to major development projects.  Two homeowners did not want to sell the houses they had worked so hard to buy. Disney was forced to re-route a huge drainage canal around one of the plots, and the park continues to surround both properties to this day. Yet no one can argue against the fact that Walt Disney World is now one of the most popular theme parks in the world, while acknowledging that people should be able to keep what they own.

And that’s not all.  Many other private businesses have successfully developed property without forcing regular folks out of their family homes and livelihoods. Here are just a few current cases of innovative planning, which still respect property rights:

  • Trammell Crow Co., a commercial real estate business, had big plans for Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C.  They planned to transform several hundred lots into 120,000 square feet of retail, more than 1,700 apartments and condominiums, and 234,000 square feet of offices. All of the landowners sold except one lone architect named Austin L. Spriggs. The company offered Spriggs up to $3 million for his property, but the offer was simply not enough to compel the architect to start again from his own drawing board.
  • Robert Murphy, a development operations manager for Trammell, stated that, “Mr. Sprigg’s property was a property we needed [, so] we really wanted to try to get him.”[1]

    But in reality, Mr. Sprigg’s property was not necessary to the Trammell plan. The company is currently building around his lot.

  • In the Washington, D.C. neighborhood of Chinatown, a 10-story tower was erected around an old three-story building which houses a tarot card reader and a souvenir shop. The tower is wrapped around the building in an L-shape and blocks daylight, but the tenants of the building are perfectly content.[2]
  • In southeast Washington, D.C., a 14-story Marriott Courtyard Hotel is designed around a, two-story brick corner building. The hotel was still erected without the use of eminent domain and is prosperous to this day.[3]

Even those who work for redevelopment agencies do not believe that eminent domain is needed to force people out of their own properties. Redevelopment agents like Neil Fritz of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., showed proper deference to property owners when he prohibited the condemnation of Van Buren Gardens. So smack-dab in the middle of Fort Lauderdale’s Hollywood Station project stands the white, 12-unit, two-story condo building, Van Buren Gardens. The $120 million Hollywood Station redevelopment project spans four city blocks and is replete with condominiums, lofts, townhouses, internal plazas, gardens, parking garages, rooftop terraces and hot tubs. Buildings will be as tall as 14 stories. A planned 602 residences and 15,550 square feet of retail will be built around Van Buren Gardens, on all four sides.

Van Buren Gardens tenant Jean Joseph asserts, even amidst the falling debris right outside his second floor window, “I’m fine right now. As long as the building is here, I’m here.”

  • A judge in Hollywood, Fla. narrowly ruled for the Mach family, whose property had been condemned for a development project. According to the judge, the City and the developer, Charles “Chip” Abele, in order to exercise their powers of eminent domain, had to prove that they needed the Mach property in order to complete their project. Abele controlled 13 of 14 land parcels on the block and had planned to proceed developing without the Mach property if necessary. Judge Rothschild used this fact as evidence that the Mach family property was not necessary to the redevelopment of the area. Abele is currently converting 13 of the 14 parcels into a 19-story condo and retail tower, and the Mach family’s property remains intact.
  • Also consider Dublin, Ohio, where patience—and not government interference—paid off in the end. A developer and the city planners of Dublin envisioned a large auto mall at an intersection near downtown. The developer was able to acquire most of the land but the owner of a 1.5-acre farm with prime intersection street frontage refused to sell for the price offered. Without the power of eminent domain, the developer merely built around the farm. Within five years, the farmer decided to sell because he did not like to live next to the mall and the developer was able to finish his original plan.[4]

The lesson is simple:  Everyone wins with a little creativity and proper respect of the rights of home and small business owners everywhere.  Developers can build without violating anyone’s constitutional rights.


[1] Lyndsey Layton, “A Solitary Stand at the Precipice,” The Washington Post, May 3, 2006.

[2]  Ibid.

[3]  Ibid.

[4] Jordan Rose, “Eminent Domain Abuse in Arizona: The Growing Threat to Private Property,” Goldwater Institute, Aug. 16, 2002, available at http://www.heartland.org/pdf/10340.pdf (August 18, 2006).

Cincinnati's Uptown Consortium Exposed

Cincinnati has witnessed some of the most outrageous examples of eminent domain abuse seen anywhere in the nation. It took an Ohio Supreme Court decision to finally stop this abuse in the Cincinnati suburb of Norwood, but unfortunately, that’s not the only example in the area. Cincinnati developers sought to take the homes and businesses of Clifton Heights area residents who refused to give in to the City’s repeated threats to take over private property in order to benefit big business.

The redevelopment project known as “The Uptown Consortium,” led by a network of CEOs and chummy board members of the University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati Medical Center, Cincinnati Children’s Medical Center, and the Cincinnati Zoo, bulldozed parts of this quaint college neighborhood and seeks to replace it with retail shops, upscale condos, a hotel, various entertainment venues and a parking garage.

Clifton Heights is a bustling middle-class community with many college students, young families, and faculty. Residents enjoy family-owned bookstores and coffee shops, churches and parks, as well as a busy community center and several small theaters.[1]

To accomplish their goals, the Uptown Consortium inaccurately claimed that the entire area was “blighted,” citing population decline and supposedly unhealthy neighborhoods.

Bill Wood, owner of the restaurant “In The Wood,” was shocked to discover his property was being called “blighted.” Wood’s family restaurant had all-American fare, such as burgers and fries, where a family could eat for under $10 a person.[2] And just next door another American favorite was being served at “Acropolis Chili,” owned by Joe Kennedy.

“I wasn’t a blight for 17 years while I was paying my taxes,” Kennedy said. “The blight is what the city’s creating up here.”[3]

Both Wood and Kennedy refused to give up their generations–owned family businesses as the City filed eminent domain lawsuits to force them to move off properties that were rightfully theirs.

The Clifton Heights Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation headed the Uptown Consortium Project. The Corporation wreaked havoc upon Clifton Heights, while at the same time using public subsidies and tax credits. Reports show that it used a $33 million UC credit line, as well as a $52 million allocation of tax credits in order to fund the project.[4]

What the Corporation did not anticipate, however, was that Wood, Kennedy and another company that owned two fast food restaurants on the same street, would refuse to sell out their businesses only to make way for other businesses—and someone else’s private profit.

The Corporation only offered the business owners a relocation fee if they left. But according to Kennedy, the $20,000 offer was hardly substantial to justify starting anew the business he already owned in the first place and had worked hard to create nearly 20 years ago.[5]

The business owners refused to cave in and continued to serve college students and families hamburgers, hot dogs and chili. The Corporation became anxious and decided to use the tool of desperation: eminent domain. The City declared the area as “blighted,” citing a “population decline” and the area’s low-income status.[6]

What’s worse, the CEOs of the Corporation, the University of Cincinnati (partial financier of the project) and various city officials were all real estate speculators who stood to benefit personally from the possible development of the area, according to Kennedy and his attorney.[7]

Wood and Kennedy, in true American fashion, refused to sit back and let their true Constitutional rights be destroyed. They brought suit against the City along with their attorney, who noted that the Corporation was, “removing one business for the benefit of another business. My clients are very successful where they are. They invested in the neighborhood and only want to be left alone.” [8]

The lawsuit helped to expose the projects’ roundabout financing strategy and personal agendas. The $100 million project was stopped dead in its tracks when the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center would not agree to the terms of the loan to the developers, thus compelling the city to freeze the rest of the funds.

Like many cases before, this example shows that the abuse of government power in eminent domain cases only leads to threatening hardworking citizens and their lawful right to own properties. If left up to genuine negotiation rather than government force, most of these situations would have a way of working themselves out with a little creativity and business savvy.

The halting of the Uptown Consortium Project is nothing new to the world of eminent domain battles. This is just one in a long list of failures in which the speculative developer went running to the government rather than leaving decisions to the people and to the private sector.


[1] Clifton Heights Community Homepage: www.cincinnatihome.org/neighborhood/cuf.

[2] www.cincinnatiusa.com/Dining.

[3] Dan Monk, “Another eminent domain fight gets ugly,” Cincinnati Business Courier, May 21, 2004.

[4] Dan Monk, “Huge UC project might be dead,” Cincinnati Business Courier, July 7, 2006.

[5] Monk, “Another eminent domain fight gets ugly.” Cincinnati Business Courier, May 21, 2004.

[6] Ibid..

[7]Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

Botanical Garden Wants to Grow Into Neighbor's Property

To most people, a botanical garden is a beautiful greenhouse of trees and flowers for all to see and publicly enjoy. But to the locals of a quaint St. Louis area neighborhood known as “McRee Town,” the Missouri Botanical Garden became a source of conflict and stress.

More than 300 historic buildings encompassed McRee Town, just outside downtown St. Louis. The property owners put special significance on their little township, who saw it as a haven for certain folks who wouldn’t have been able to afford a decent place to live anywhere else.

Beginning in 2000, the Missouri Botanical Gardens saw the low-income status of the locals as their opportunity to stake their claim in the prime real-estate area and labeled it “blighted” in order to get their unfair share of the pie.

Renamed for its grandiose redevelopment project, McRee Town became “Botanical Heights,” headed by McRee Town Redevelopment Corporation (MRTC) and the Botanical Gardens.

But to one outraged citizen who refused to get along with the City’s eminent domain attempts, Botanical Heights was merely the bulldozing of trees to make way for…more trees. The plan was to put single-family homes in place of the property, priced between $130,000 and $350,000, as well as an expansion of the Gardens.[1]

In 1973, William Peppes planted baby locust trees all around his property and nursed them proudly for 30 years. But after federal approval in 2000 for HB 3405, $2 million worth of HUD funding was pumped into McRee Town[2], allowing eminent domain to be used as MRTC built new single-family homes.

The Missouri Botanical Gardens mission statement is clear, as they claim to possess “knowledge of plants and the environment, in order to preserve and enrich life.” [3]  But they certainly weren’t following their mission in 2003, when bulldozers plowed their way through the neighborhood with little regard for the history, nor for the care and passion Peppes had put into his property and mature locust trees. The hypocritical redevelopment continued even as Peppes and a few other neighbors refused to back down from the government’s threats of eminent domain.

“It brought tears to my eyes,” proclaimed Peppes. “I nurtured those trees for more than 30 years. They were marked ‘Private Property.’ But it didn’t matter. Just like that, they were gone.” [4]

Peppes’ family has owned the property since 1952 and to him, the plot of land was more than just a place to call home—it was a precious family heirloom.

“My family has owned this land for 54 years,” said Peppes. “It’s not for sale.”[5]

Peppes was so determined to hang on to his property in McRee that he even defeated MTRC’s attempt to kick him off his lot. In July of 2004 the City offered him a measly $8,500 to move out and start his life completely anew someplace else.

By November of 2004, the City grew impatient with Peppes’ refusal to move out of the only home he had ever known.  MTRC attempted to sue the steadfast property owner, but they soon learned that they were dealing with a citizen who simply wouldn’t let the government trample all over him and his rights.

Peppes had intended to do some of his own redevelopment all along, which included plans for a small bar and some renewal to parts of his home that would provide shelter for some low-income renters. He also pointed to the fact that the City’s own ordinance had been completely ignored, one that allowed private property owners to do their own redevelopment.

By June of 2005, Peppes had been so vocal in his fight to keep his own property—and to do with it as he pleased—that MTRC was forced to withdraw its eminent domain threat.

Peppes turned around and sued MTRC for $25,000 worth of property damage for bulldozing his precious locust trees—and won. To boot, he added another $15,000 claim to the suit to order MTRC to pay his legal fees.[6]

William Peppes’ dedication and passion prevailed in the end—he still lives on his property, and plans to re-plant the trees and even a garden space he wants the public to enjoy. His story should be inspiring to all who are fighting eminent domain abuse. This wonderful example shows that when hard-working citizens stands up to the government and to big-business developers, they can win.


[1] Chad Garrison, “Lot in life,” Riverfront Times, July 5, 2006.

[2] www.THOMAS.gov: Community Development Grant, HB 3405.

[3] www.mobot.org/mobot/archives/ Miss. Botanical Gardens ‘About’ Page, Retrieved August 15, 2006.

[4] Chad Garrison, “Lot in life,” Riverfront Times, July 5, 2006.

[5] Chad Garrison, “Lot in life,” Riverfront Times, July 5, 2006.

[6] Ibid.

Other Sources:

City of St. Louis, Development Activity: McRee Town Phase II, www.stlcin.missouri.org/devprojects/projinfo.cfm?DevProjectID=466, April 22, 2005.

Shelley Smithson, “The Greening of McRee Town,” Riverfront Times, August 10, 2003.

"Blighted" California

Just 50 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Santa Rosa, Calif., a big city with a small-town feel, has sat quietly for generations, as family businesses have grown and people have found homes to call their own. The mostly industrial area of Santa Rosa Avenue has been a haven for business owners, who own everything from car repair shops to painting businesses.

“There is no good reason to make tax-paying people move off their properties,” said Casey Cambra, an activist who wants to stop the City Council and the Gateways Project in its tracks. He added, “They can’t just kick people out.”

But that haven may soon be lost—despite the opposition of the property owners—to the all-encompassing “Gateways Redevelopment Project.” With that project the City of Santa Rosa plans to displace thriving local businesses in order to turn the land over to private developers, who want to build a shopping mall and a parking garage.[1] Worse, the City justifies this scheme using an increasingly common excuse: using the façade of creating “low income housing,” when the real goal is luxury development and higher tax revenue.

To one vocal man whose family has owned property on Santa Rosa Avenue for over three generations, the actions taken by the City of Santa Rosa are more than he can stand.

“There is no good reason to make tax-paying people move off their properties,” said Casey Cambra, an activist who wants to stop the City Council and the Gateways Project in its tracks. He added, “They can’t just kick people out.”[2]

But kicking people out is precisely what the City, along with five major development companies, intends to do. They turn a blind eye to the fact that Cambra, along with many property owners along Santa Rosa Avenue, have depended on their properties for their livelihoods for several generations. To make matters worse, the City seems to have forgotten that private property should only be taken for public uses—not private ones.

The City passed an ordinance on June 20, 2006, dictating that lots that are “small and irregular, mixed character, or incompatible” are “blighted,” thus giving the City the power of eminent domain.[3] Never mind that these characteristics describe any neighborhood in the country. The City wants the land to further its agenda, so it uses the charade of “blight” to trigger the power of eminent domain.

Cambra’s grandmother owns two of the lots in the sought-after area, one of which has a Harley-Davidson dealership. Also along the Avenue are what Cambra describes as “mostly industrial” businesses- a BMW repair shop, a sign-painting business, and other automobile services—all important elements of a thriving economy.

Fed up and disgusted with the actions of the City to use eminent domain to kick out people whose businesses are clearly not “blighted,” Cambra set out on a mission to raise awareness in Santa Rosa. He is making his own posters and educating his neighbors and friends on the issue of eminent domain abuse.

“I don’t want to give up on this property easily,” Cambra said. “I intend on continuing to do my business not just in Santa Rosa but in America.”

Also planned is a website dedicated to the area that is threatened, in the hopes of raising awareness about the community’s business district along Santa Rosa Avenue.

“Everyone is busy, and I understand that better than anyone,” added Cambra. “But this is definitely something we have to take the time out to fight.”

So far, the City of Santa Rosa has not backed down from its plans to redevelop the entire business district area, and they are not afraid to use eminent domain to do it.[4] But with the sincere passion of Casey Cambra and his business neighbors, the City and its developer friends will learn what it’s like to challenge people who understand that it is their right to keep what is rightfully theirs.


[1] “Letter From Jeffrey D Meyer.” City of Santa Rosa. 28 Apr. 2006. 07 Sept. 2006 www.ci.santa-rosa.ca.

[2] Cambra, Casey. Telephone interview. 29 Aug. 2006.

[3] “Ordinance No. 3782: Approving and Adopting the Redevelopment Plan for the Gateways Redevelopment Project Area”” City of Santa Rosa. 20 June 2006. 29 Aug. 2006 www.ci.santa-rosa.ca.

[4] “Gateways Redevelopment Plan for the Gateways Redevelopment Project Area,” prepared by the Redevelopment Agency of the City of Santa Rosa, May 11, 2006.

Other Sources:

Joy Lanzendorfer, “Blight or fight,” Metroactive, July 12-18, 2006.

Citizens Against Eminent Domain. 29 Aug. 2006 www.srcitizensagainsteminentdomain.com.

BB&T's Principled Stand

All across the United States, various financial institutions provide development companies the money to build luxury condominiums, big-box stores, retail shopping centers and parking garages. Many of these projects are built on property taken from private individuals by the government through its power of eminent domain—a clear abuse of the 5th Amendment’s Public Use Clause.

But there is one principled bank that stands alone in saying “NO” to eminent domain abuse—BB&T. The ninth largest bank in the country, with more than 1,400 branches in 11 states and in Washington, D.C.,[1] BB&T announced earlier this year that it will not finance any projects that have anything to do with taking people’s homes or businesses through the practice of eminent domain.

“The idea that a citizen’s property can be taken by the government solely for private use is extremely misguided, in fact it’s just plain wrong,” said BB&T Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John Allison,[2] who also spoke at the Castle Coalition’s fifth annual eminent domain conference in June.

BB&T’s solid stance should not come as a surprise. On its website, the BB&T Corporation has an extensive description of its core philosophy: “Our fundamental principles [are] unchanging because these principles are based on basic truths.”[3]

Those principles include clearly outlined values, based on fact-based reality, objective reason, independent thinking, productivity, honesty, integrity, justice, pride, self-motivation, and teamwork.[4]

So it’s no wonder that those principles guided BB&T’s stand against eminent domain abuse, which will undoubtedly assist home and small business owners protect what they already own from the government’s wrecking ball.

The message is simple: “One of the most basic rights of every citizen is to keep what they own. As an institution dedicated to helping our clients achieve economic success and financial security, we won’t help any entity or company that would undermine that mission and threaten the hard-earned American dream of property ownership.”[5]

BB&T was certainly taking a bold step and did not know how their hard-line stance against eminent domain abuse would play out for their own business.[6] After all, they made the decision based on principle and not on how the marketplace would react. Given BB&T’s $109 billion in assets and ranking within the nation’s top ten banks,[7] many were paying attention to just what role this decision would play in their daily business.

By September 2006, BB&T was able to measure the impact of their decision, and the results were striking.

“The impact has been very positive, not negative,” said BB&T spokesman Bob Denham. “The policy was announced in January, and by February we had more net new accounts posted than in any previous month in the bank’s history.”[8]

Only eight months after their groundbreaking announcement, it may be still too soon to tell the long-term impacts of BB&T’s principled stand. But the Castle Coalition proudly predicts that protecting regular folks is always the smart and noble way to go.

BB&T clearly continues to stand on the side of honest, hard-working Americans in the fight against eminent domain abuse. For the sake of those Americans, the Castle Coalition hopes many other banks will follow in the principled and guided path of the bold leadership of BB&T—the outcome is obvious.


[1] Paul Nowell, “BB&T ends loans for eminent domain,” USA Today, January 26, 2006.

[2] Bob Denham, “BB&T announces eminent domain policy,” BB&T Public Relations, Press Release, January 25, 2006.

[3] http://www.bbt.com/bbt/about/philosophy/strategicobjectives.html.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bob Denham, “BB&T announces eminent domain policy,” BB&T Public Relations, Press Release, January 25, 2006.

[6] G.M. Corrigan, “BB&T praised for stand against eminent domain,” The Washington Examiner, September 8, 2006.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

Is Nothing Sacred?

Pastor Ivory W. Holden and his congregation in Bridgeport, Conn., can relate to Moses, who led the Israelites—having been forced from their homeland—through the desert for 40 years. That’s because Holden and the 300 members of his Church of God in Christ were recently forced out of their 50-year home by the local government’s abuse of eminent domain.[1]

Beginning in 2000, the City of Bridgeport decided that it needed to bulldoze more than 100 properties in order to make way for the Steel Point Redevelopment Project, which would house a monstrous development of 11 residential towers, a luxury hotel and high-end retail shops, and—as if the luxury project weren’t grandiose enough—a helipad.[2]

Unfortunately, in the world of eminent domain abuse, even churches and synagogues are not protected from the government’s wrecking ball. A person’s freedom to worship in the United States suddenly becomes jeopardized when it comes to governments and developers greedy desire for tax revenue and land, underscoring the fact that property rights are the foundation for all our rights.

The City used eminent domain to acquire the Church in 2001, forcing Holden and his congregants out of their small white, steepled church, which enjoyed a picturesque view of the waterfront. All the while, the City never publicly admitted that it was using eminent domain for the redevelopment project. Instead, they seemed to disguise actions by playing up what would replace the church and surrounding properties: “The City may use state funding to help purchase required properties for the development,” adding, “this City has not received the attention it deserves in terms of economic development from the state, but that is all changing.”[3] This high sounding language is a common tactic used by local governments to mask what’s actually happening—homes, churches and small businesses are being taken for someone else’s private profit.

That greediness is what forces out little churches like Pastor Holden’s and sends them on a search for a new home, all while enduring years of displacement.

“It was a struggle for land,” said Holden. “We were looking for two acres to build a church.”[4]

Even though the City had promised the Church help in finding a new location, the reality was that the Church was alone in its search as it moved its congregation from one location to another. At first, services were held at nearby Central High School, then later at the Hall Neighborhood House. Pastor Holden and his congregation made due with their temporary locations.[5]

And there was no surprise among those who follow eminent domain abuse that, as the congregation moved around, the luxury Steel Point Redevelopment Project still had not even broken ground. It’s often the case that cities make promises about bringing wonderful things to the community, use eminent domain, displace countless people, and then fail to deliver on their promises.

But the little displaced Church persevered, and they finally found a place to call home. In 2005, Pastor Holden found a building that had housed a church previously, and was ready for some new congregants.

As of August 2006, the Steel Point Redevelopment Project still has not been started. What sits now is a large open space of what once was a thriving small community of Bridgeport, Conn., and the echoes of the people that have now been displaced.

But however infuriating the City’s actions may be, Pastor Holden still holds his head up high and does not hold a grudge.

“It was a faith-testing experience,” he said. “Israel was in the wilderness for 40 years.”[6]

This story of broken promises and a Church that had to endure several moves throughout the community is not uncommon to abuses of eminent domain. That is why the Castle Coalition strongly supports churches that are being threatened with eminent domain to make way for private development.

Download: “Hand Off My Church,” poster.


[1] Aaron Leo, “Pastor moves congregation to promised land,” Connecticut Post Online, August 21, 2006.

[2] “Getting real on urban development,” Reason Magazine, August 29, 2006.

[3] Press Release, Office of Governor Rell, “Governor Rell announces state funding to purchase property for Bridgeport Steel Point Development Project,” March 27, 2006.

[4] Aaron Leo, “Pastor moves congregation to promised land,” Connecticut Post Online, August 21, 2006.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.