Public [Dis]use

Urban renewal, a strategy used by the government to clear cut entire neighborhoods to spur supposed economic growth, had its heyday in the 1950s and 60s when urban populations dwindled and cities chose to remake themselves through the wrecking ball and central planning.

One such project, New Haven, Conn., has been no stranger to this often gruesome and heart-breaking strategy.  In fact, New Haven can be seen as the epicenter of urban renewal, as twice the amount of money per capita was spent there on grandiose redevelopment plans than in any other city.  In the late 1960s in New Haven, urban renewal wiped out an entire neighborhood to make way for various projects, such as apartment towers and city plazas, claiming the projects would give residents a “decent home and suitable living environment.”[1]

The Veterans Memorial Coliseum, finished in 1972 and spanning 4.5 acres, was considered the ray of hope that would bring vast economic relief to the area, in the form of stores, shops and gas stations.[2]  Though many residents were forced out by eminent domain to make way for the new Coliseum, many in the community actually came to like the venue.[3]

Few could resist the legendary concerts of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Garth Brooks when they came through town, while hockey-crazed New Englanders appreciated the Coliseum’s three minor league hockey teams that skated through there over the years when the venue wasn’t hosting the Harlem Globetrotters or monster truck rallies. [4]

But, as it turns out, despite countless events over its 30-year life, big names weren’t enough to create that economic spark hoped for by the government.

“It never created any economic activity around it,” said New Haven’s mayor, John DeStefano, Jr.  “It didn’t even sustain a bar on the corner.”[5]

That reason alone prompted City officials to shut down the Coliseum.  A symbol of urban renewal, sold with such high expectations, was itself meeting the same fate as the properties that were destroyed to make way for it.  A product of government-planned urban “renewal” 30 years before, the City would continued the cycle of destruction to construction to destruction again, with no end in sight.

On January 20, 2007, the Coliseum was demolished as residents looked on.[6]  So far, the plans for the site include a college campus, a theater and a hotel[7], though there is no indication yet whether or not eminent domain will be used.  If the Coliseum experience is any indication, government planning may not be the best strategy for this area.

This is yet another example of a government-dictated renewal project that failed. Development would have been better left to the private market—as the Castle Coalition and the Institute for Justice advocate.

[1] Jonathan Finer, “Urban renewal’s final implosion,” The Washington Post, October 22, 2006.

[2] Priscilla Searles, “Thanks for the memories,” Business News Haven, August 22, 2005.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jonathan Finer, “Urban renewal’s final implosion,” The Washington Post, October 22, 2006.

[6] “New Haven Coliseum is gone,” WTNH Channel 9, Connecticut, January 20, 2007.

[7] Jonathan Finer, “Urban renewal’s final implosion,” The Washington Post, October 22, 2006.

Forecast: Threatening Skies Ahead

Property owners living and working in downtown El Paso, Texas, haven’t had their property condemned by the city – yet.  Although the City of El Paso has declared a moratorium of sorts on using eminent domain to acquire property in the heart of El Paso, officials need only wait until November of 2008 before they can begin condemning properties that fall within their revitalization plans.[1] Government bodies at other levels within the state of Texas, however, are trying to make sure the city doesn’t get the chance to take that land for private development.

The grand plans for downtown El Paso were introduced in March 2006 by the Paso del Norte Group (PDNG), which, according to the group’s website would like the region to “become North America’s epicenter of U.S./Mexican Commerce.”[2]  Some 377 properties—houses, apartments and businesses—currently sit under the cloud of condemnation.[3]

Responding to the threat initiated by the private developers and the city council, residents and property owners in the affected areas have come together to form an effective opposition. One such group, Land Grab Opponents, have threatened to sue if the city decides to use eminent domain, while the Unified Downtown Revitalization Coalition would like to draw up a new plan that would develop but not destroy the history and character of downtown El Paso.

Mayor John Cook hopes the moratorium will allow the city to negotiate with property owners affected by the redevelopment plan.[4]

Stuart Blaugrund, the lawyer for Land Grab Opponents, sees only a small reprieve for the citizens affected: “Actually condemning the private property may be the last thing you do…but your ability to do so is so ominous that the threat of eminent domain will permeate all so-called negotiations.”[5]  The El Paso situation underscores the fact that it’s not the filing of a lawsuit that matters to home and small business owners but the power to forcibly take in the end.

Not everyone on the city council, however, is in favor of using eminent domain – in fact, two out of the eight members openly oppose it.  In January, representative Eddie Halguin proposed an ordinance that would have limited the definitions of “public use” and “blight,” but the city council rejected it.[6]   The minority on the council is having a hard time just getting the council to talk about the possible use of eminent domain as part of the city’s plans.  One of the members supportive of the plan allegedly told Halguin, “I think we’ve spent too much time talking on this.”[7] 

While the City Council of El Paso stalls and delays the debate about eminent domain, another level of local government is taking the issue head-on in response to El Paso’s redevelopment plan.  On February 5, 2007, citing El Paso native Sandra Day O’Connor’s dissent in Kelo, the El Paso County Commissioners Court requested that the State of Texas pass legislation and initiate a constitutional amendment that would establish a “traditional definition of public use” and would prohibit local governments from “condemn[ing] private property for private development purposes.”[8]

Five days later, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott released a statement regarding the process of eminent domain, confirming that “a city may not designate an area as a re-investment zone unless the area is unproductive, underdeveloped, or blighted….”[9]

In light of this, Blaugrund asserts that despite its designated status as “blighted” downtown, El Paso is economically vibrant, again demonstrating how vague and subjective “blight” definitions are, threatening any property in Texas.[10]

Meanwhile, the Texas legislature is working on changing eminent domain law in the state. Currently, there are constitutional amendments to limit the public taking of the private property have been introduced in the Texas House of Representatives and are currently in committee.  Additionally, legislation that would create a Landowners Bill of Rights was submitted in February. Other statutory protections are also expected to be filed.

The fight between the City of El Paso and its residents is far from over.  The people of El Paso as well as other Texas government officials are working to protect the rights of property owners and to ensure individuals get to keep what they’ve worked so hard to own.  The majority of Texans and Americans everywhere believe that private property should not be taken for private gain.

[1] David Crowder, “Downtown tax zone for revitalization is approved,” El Paso Times, December 20, 2006.

[2] The Paso del Norte Group,

[3] City of El Paso, Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone Number 5, El Paso Downtown Plan, 2006 (on file with author).

[4] Crowder.

[5]  Ibid.

[6]El Paso City Council Meeting Agenda 01-23-07

[7] “Eminent Domain Divides Council,” KDBC-TV, January 30, 2007.

[8] On file with the author.

[9] Attorney General of Texas, Opinion No. GA-0514

[10] “Tx Attorney General releases statement on position of Downtown Revitalization Plan,” KVIA-TV, El Paso, February 10, 2007.

Dealing With the Developer

The borough of North Arlington, N.J., is beginning to realize the consequences of making a Faustian deal with a developer.  Tempted by the mere promise of increased tax revenue, the borough agreed to allow North Carolina-based developer Cherokee Investment Partners to expand their massive 785-acre development on a nearby landfill, even though the plan required the condemnation of 16 businesses. Last November, the citizens of North Arlington did what was in their power as citizens of a democracy:  they voted for a mayor and council that supported their position that property should not be taken for private gain. But the borough’s new government is finding out that just how much of its power was ceded to the developer as it finds itself struggling to protect its own citizens.

Five years ago, Cherokee’s Florida subsidiary, EnCap Golf, proposed to expand its Meadowlands project to include the land occupied by businesses along North Arlington’s Porete Avenue because the industrial businesses would purportedly lessen the desirability of the $500,000 condos being built nearby. Bill Gauger, president of Cherokee Northeast, stated quite plainly, “I can’t create a sense of place with the businesses right next door.”[1]

The North Arlington council agreed to the plan that would add 1,625 residential units and 50,000 square feet of retail space and require the loss of some 16 businesses, 500 jobs and $1 million in tax revenue. In return for developing Arlington Valley, Cherokee would get about 50 percent of future property tax revenues, expected to be about $600 million over the next 30 years, and the ability to place a 15 percent surcharge on future taxes thereby adding another $90 million over next few decades.[2] 

Aware of the more than $500 million EnCap was promised by towns in the nearby Meadowlands development, residents of North Arlington were suspicious. 

At the time the deal was approved, Salvatore DiBlasi, owner of Cobra Construction, one of the businesses slated to be condemned, criticized the decision: “It’s a shame the people we elected to protect us, we have to spend our own money to defend ourselves against…we’re going to give them a fight for their money.”[3]

And fight DiBlasi did – running and then getting elected to the Borough Council last November.  As did councilmember Peter Massa, who objected to the plan from the start, and then ran for mayor and won.  Both vowed to defend the rights of their fellow citizens. 

Just in time for Christmas, EnCap sent a letter to the borough council ordering the borough to begin condemning the businesses along Porete Avenue. At the end of December, EnCap filed a lawsuit against North Arlington because the borough did not follow its dictate and, according to the suit, violated the contract approved by the council years before.[4] 

Mayor Massa assumed office in January and immediately announced a financial crisis because the borough had based their budget on revenues from EnCap’s development, having already accepted $2 million from EnCap, and had allowed the borough’s main source of revenue, fees from garbage collecting, to slip away.[5] 

Despite the lawsuit and the distressing financial situation he inherited, Massa will continue to fight for the business-owners of North Arlington, saying in January: “I will not sell out North Arlington for 30 pieces of silver and short-term political gain.”[6] 

Furthering the mayor’s resolve, North Arlington pulled out of its deal with EnCap on April 4, 2007, a year after agreeing on the deal. The city council still wishes to see new developments in North Arlington, but this time they will not let a developer take over the city.

"The days when a developer can come in here and dictate that business should be torn down are over," declared Councilman Steven Tanelli.[7]

But North Arlington may not be free of EnCap yet. Despite the actions of the Borough Council, Encap’s suit against the city remains. 

The residents of North Arlington have used their power as citizens to affect change in their community, and, try as they might, the new Borough Council has found itself beholden to the commands of a developer. The story of North Arlington serves as a warning to all communities that are willing to bargain away the ownership of the town to outside investors: not only are property rights at stake but so are the powers of local governments.

[1] Laura Mansnerus, “Eminent Domain’s Pre-Eminence,” New York Times, May 28, 2006.

[2] Jeff Pillets and John Brennan, “Turf Battle; N. Arlington businesses spearhead fight against EnCap,” The Record, February 16, 2007.

[3] Quoted in “Showdown looms over eminent domain; N. Arlington merchants fighting redevelopment,” The Record, March 19, 2006.

[4] Mitchel Maddux, “State won’t let EnCap bonding go forward; Wants guarantee that towns don’t face risk,” The Record, December 29, 2006.

[5] John A. Gavin, “N. Arlington mayor warns of belt tightening; Focuses on finances, EnCap friction,” The Record, January 4, 2007.

[6] Quoted in ibid.

[7] Quoted in Jeff Pillets, “North Arlington nixes EnCap development deal,” The Herald News, April 5, 2007.

"Blight" In the Desert

California City, population 10,000, really is the size of a city, stretching across 203 square miles of the Mojave Desert, an area larger in size than Denver or New Orleans. Empty desert dotted with sagebrush doesn’t seem like it could fall under anyone’s definition of “blight,” but that’s exactly how the city of California City defined it in 2003 to make way for a Hyundai test track, showing how ridiculously broad California’s redevelopment laws are.

In 2002, Hyundai approached the city about developing a test track on vacant desert land the city would actually have to annex in order to give to the carmaker. By the end of the year, a consulting firm determined that 26 square miles of land was blighted according to California law because it was “characterized by lots of irregular form and shape and/or inadequate size…and [by] lots that are not accessible [from public roads].”[1]

City officials were very creative with their interpretation of the law. These plots were in those irregular shapes called squares and rectangles. Most plots were 2.5 acres, but some were as big as 640 acres – clearly large enough for any type of development. The city defined “irregular” and “inadequate” plots of land to be those that couldn’t be accessed by a public road, even though the law’s definition of blight deals with the shape and size of land already developed.

In 2003, the city decided to use its power of eminent domain to obtain the land from 202 property owners based on its odd interpretation of blight. The city valued the land at $1,000 an acre, and many owners sold or settled with the city.[2] Five property owners, however, refused to sell or negotiate with the city. They filed suit against California City, challenging the city’s condemnation of their “urbanized” and “blighted” land.

June Ailin, a lawyer for one of the landowners stated the obvious: “The law was not intended to deal with large, vacant rural areas…. This area is not urbanized. It’s not blighted.”[3]

Nevertheless, in 2005, the superior court in Bakersfield ruled in favor of the city. It thought there was enough evidence to describe the land as “irregular” in form and shape and “inadequate” size for development.[4] The property owners appealed.

Luckily for the property owners, they found government officials able to interpret the plain language of the law. The Attorney General of California filed an amicus brief with the appellate court on their behalf arguing that California City had abused the state’s development law when it “designated thousands of acres of bare, undeveloped land in the middle of the desert as blighted.”[5]

Recently, the California Court of Appeal found that the California City Redevelopment agency had made an “erroneously broad interpretation” of the state’s “blight” law by using a definition that did not “reflect the usual and ordinary meanings of the words” in the law.[6]

The city of California City does not plan on letting the “usual and ordinary meanings” of words stand in their way, however. They have appealed to the California Supreme Court, no doubt hoping the justices in the state’s high court will find their new definition of “blight” acceptable.

If California’s definition of blight holds up to the court’s scrutiny, it could be the largest expansion of a word’s definition since the U.S. Supreme Court expanded the definition of “public use” in its Kelo decision to mean essentially “public benefit.” But no matter the judgment, the case in California City demonstrates the vulnerability of private property in the United States, even if that property is in the pristine wilderness of an empty desert, as well as the length to which some local officials will go for increased tax revenue.

[1] Quoted in Neilson v. City of California City, 53 Cal Rptr. 3d 143, 146 Cal. App 4th 633 (Cal. Ct. App. 2007).

[2] Rachana Rathi, “Landowners Get Help from State in Kern County Dispute…” Los Angeles Times, August 29, 2005.

[3] Quoted in ibid.

[4] N.L. Neilson v. City of California et al.

[5] Quoted in ibid.

[6] Ibid.

Syracuse Home & Business Owners Team Up to Defend Their Property

In 2005, Syracuse-based developer Pyramid Companies proposed to build to a research and development park called Destiny USA in Salina, N.Y., a suburb of Syracuse. The developer assumed the Onondaga County Industrial Development Agency (OCIDA) would pave the way for the $2.6 billion project by acquiring privately owned land through the development agency’s eminent domain powers. Two years later, because of the continued dedication of the Salina 29, a group of business and homeowners threatened by the proposal, billionaire developer Robert Congel has dropped his request that the city acquire the land for him.

The area Congel wanted to have condemned contains 27 successful businesses and two homes. The owners of the properties came together to oppose the abuse of eminent domain by OCIDA because the agency would have transferred their privately owned properties directly to Destiny USA.

After two years and no construction, OCIDA was close to terminating the application for the project. In January, Congel indicated he would modify the application. Two month later, Destiny USA submitted a new plan, which left out the request for OCIDA to use eminent domain to acquire the properties.[1]

Destiny USA’s plan is beyond ambitious and must appear extremely tempting to local officials. Besides the research and development park, the plan calls for what seems to be a Congel-owned city within Salina and nearby Syracuse. The first phase of the plan, a mall expansion in Syracuse, is already under way. In addition to being run free of fossil fuels, “Destiny USA will own all of the dining, entertainment, retail and hospitality venues” in the area 90 percent of whose employees will be on Destiny USA’s payroll. Its website promises Destiny USA “will attract more people, more often, and more profitably than anything ever built.”

With such overblown hype, it is no wonder Congel felt that the properties owned by the Salina 29 were “underutilized” and should be taken by the government and incorporated into the third phase of its plan. From the beginning, however, members of the Salina 29 were confident that what they had spent their entire lives building up would not be torn down by condemnation.

In 2005, Philip Jakes-Johnson, owner of Solvent and Petroleum Services, told The New York Times, “Here’s the difference. We’re here. We pay our taxes. We built companies and run them without tax breaks. So we don’t have what he [Congel] has. We have something better.”[2]

Although OCIDA did not approve Destiny USA’s plan in June 2005, it hadn’t rejected it either, leaving the property owners in limbo. In that time, the Salina 29 group organized itself and, with the help of the Castle Coalition, began a community-based campaign to oppose the project. By the end of 2006, the group was able to convince OCIDA that all project applications should expire after one year if a plan had not progressed. [3]

Although the revised application does not include “eminent domain” specifically, it does not specifically exclude it either. In what could be a good sign for the Salina 29, however, Congel sent a letter telling OCIDA he was withdrawing “all pending requests related to the use of eminent domain.”[4] In addition, Donald Western, the county economic development director, told The Post-Standard that he understands the new application’s use of “publicly owned lands” to mean those already publicly owned by the time the application was submitted.[5]

The work and dedication Salina 29 has demonstrated during the past two years shows the strength a united group of property owners can have in the face of eminent domain abuse. Although the situation is far from over, they have accomplished what they set out to do from the very beginning: to stop the government’s seizure of their land for private use.

[1] Rick Moriarty, “Agency considers technology park aid request; developer submits new application to agency. It leaves out eminent domain,” The Post-Standard, March 9, 2007.

[2] Peter Applebome, “Clear the Way, Fellows. The Yellow Brick Road Is Coming Through,” The New York Times, May 8, 2005.

[3] Rick Moriarty, “Agency presses Destiny on eminent domain; Developer Congel has 90 days to file new paperwork on scaled-back Salina project,” The Post-Standard, January 12, 2007.

[4] Rick Moriarty, “Eminent domain off the table,” The Post-Standard, January 6, 2007.

[5] Moriarty, March 9, 2007.

Rushing to Condemn

July 1, 2007 looms large in the minds of Manhattan, Kan., city officials. That is the date after which they will no longer be able to use eminent domain for private development without the approval of the Kansas state legislature, according to the eminent domain reform law passed in 2006.  As a result, city officials are rushing to use eminent domain for seven of 23 remaining businesses in the footprint of the South End Redevelopment Project.[1]

First drawn up in 2004, the master plan for downtown Manhattan’s “revitalization” revolves around the 30,000 square-foot Flint Hills Discovery Center, which according to the plan, would house exhibits “detailing the experience in the Flint Hills and the Tall Grass Prairie.”  Surrounding the Center would be a hotel and conference center; 70,000 square feet of commercial space, including restaurants and a theater; and 24,000 square feet of residential space.[2]

Most of the property owners affected by the plan negotiated the sale of their properties and thereby avoided the use of eminent domain against them.  But some businesses owners who have asked the city for substitute lots of land to help ensure the continued survival of their businesses are under threat.

At a special meeting held by the Manhattan City Commission, Ken Cope, vice president of O’Reilly Auto Parts, told city officials, “We’re willing participants for the redevelopment, but we have to have a suitable relocation to be competitive in our business.”[3]

Not expecting the city to find them another property, O’Reilly has been proactive in trying to find somewhere to relocate.  They offered the developer, Dial Realty, three sites they thought would be suitable for the future success of the business, but Dial did not respond until after two of the properties were sold. When they did respond, they offered another site that O’Reilly did not find satisfactory. Negotiations continue over the third site O’Reilly recommended.[4]

Other local businesses like Art Craft Printers and Bud’s Auto Service are also waiting for suitable properties to relocate to before they sign over their current property to Dial.

“We don’t want to be against the project,” said Mike Conkwright, third generation owner of Bud’s. “We just feel it should not be at the present business owners’ expense.”[5]

In response to the business owners’ willingness to negotiate, the city commission approved between $200,000 and $250,000 to help them relocate.[6]

In spite of the monetary aid, city officials have been clear that their loyalties lie with the redevelopment plan, which exists only on paper, rather than with the small business owners who have invested themselves and their future in the city of Manhattan.

At the very same meeting they approved the relocation funds, the city commission approved the final reading of the ordinance giving the city authority to seize the seven remaining properties through eminent domain.  The mayor commended the approval of the ordinance beginning the condemnation process, citing the best long-term interests of the city.[7]

As the July 1 deadline approaches, the city is moving as fast as it can, trying to approve final plans with Dial Realty.  A public hearing is to be held in the near future, but even the assistant city manager admits that participation of residents would do nothing to change the plan or its timeline.[8]

The rush to condemn in Manhattan shows the willingness of city officials to abandon their constituents—even constituents who have specifically expressed an interest in working with the city—in favor of preserving government power.  By choosing to condemn rather than work directly with property owners, the city has chosen its plan over its people.

[1] Natasha Trefla, “Down to the Wire,” KTKA ABC News, March 15, 2007.

[2] City of Manhattan, “South Project Area Redevelopment Project Plan and Special Bond Project Plan Manhattan Downtown Redevelopment District,” January 30, 2007.

[3] Quoted in Trefla

[4] Willow Williamson, “City Commission takes first step toward using eminent domain in south redevelopment,” Kansas State Collegian, March 28, 2007.

[5] Mandy Stark, “Business owners wait for fair compensation, relocations for south end redevelopments,” Kansas State Collegian, April 4, 2007.

[6] Jeff Wright, “City OKs relocation help,”The Manhattan Mercury, April 4, 2007.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Jeff Wright, “City to Ok deal with Dial,” The Manhattan Mercury, April 10, 2007.

Passaic, NJ Wants to Turn Local Furniture Craftsmen Into Redevelopment Kindling

During the past 30 years, Sharut Furniture in Passaic, N.J., has survived the nationwide decline of the furniture industry as more and more companies import furniture from China and other countries.  Unfortunately, having survived the free market, Sharut may still not survive because of a homegrown menace—local politicians’ desire for more tax dollars.

The family-owned business property is located inside of Passaic’s Eastside Development project, the city’s largest.  Since 2005, the project’s plan has continually changed.  Originally, the plan called for the redevelopment of 99 acres, complete with commercial, residential and industrial areas, but the developer for the residential portion of the plan backed out in December 2006. In light of the setback, Passaic has shifted its focus to developing 25 acres, more than half of which rightfully belongs to Sharut.[1]

Despite there being major questions about whether such a project would ever become a reality, city officials insisted that the remaining parts of the redevelopment area be taken for the proposed retail area and the mere promise of more taxes that could be generated.[2] Unfortunately for the owners and employees of Sharut Furniture, their manufacturing and distribution center lies on the land city officials want for that retail area, which would include a big-box store in addition to other cookie cutter businesses cities usually favor to replace independent businesses like Sharut.

Sharut Furniture began its operation making contemporary transitional furniture in New York 30 years ago. It moved to Passaic in 1993, and employs more than 100 local woodcarvers and carpenters, many of whom walk to work every morning. Today they continue to manufacture household furniture like bedrooms, home offices and entertainment centers.  The fact that all of the furniture is made in the United States is a point of pride for Sharut’s owner David Einhorn.

According to Einhorn, in 2005 the city originally pitched the plan favorably to business owners in the area, citing the fact that the plan included a revitalized industrial area around Eighth Street, implying that businesses displaced by the other redevelopment areas would be able to move there. Since then, the land originally intended for that industrial redevelopment has been sold to a private landowner.[3]

But even moving within Passaic would have been a problem. “It would be difficult [to move] because of the size and scope of our operation,” Einhorn explained. “We’re sent orders from retailers like Macy’s and then we manufacture, deliver and install the furniture for those customers.”

Just the threat of eminent domain, however, has sent a chill over the business. Einhorn said he makes a commitment to every client and if he can’t deliver a product, a store is left with an empty showroom. 

“Because of my commitment, I hesitate to go into large opportunities because I won’t know if I’ll be able to fulfill them in six or 12 months.”

Einhorn also explained that with the threat of eminent domain, he’s scared to allow his business to grow.

“We have over 100 employees now,” he said. “Growing requires an investment and with the uncertainty, I may lose the property before I see the results of that investment.”

While running Sharut, Einhorn has tried to keep up with the news regarding the city’s redevelopment plans. But he says there has been no communication from the city. He learns of changes in plans and public hearings from the local paper or from chatting with neighbors.  Attempts to meet with the mayor and speak at public hearings have been met with indifference and a sense of inevitability in the implementation of the plan.

Einhorn is not against the plan either. He is just against the imposition of the plan on his property without any of his input in regard to the development: “If we are able to do the same plan the city is looking for, would it not be easier for the city to work with us and at least give the property owner the benefit of the redevelopment, considering that we would be losing our business?”

The City of Passiac, meanwhile, would like to replace this business that has made a mark on the local community with another run-of-the-mill business that one can find in any number of cities and towns across the country—all in the name of higher tax revenues. According to Einhorn, Passaic city officials do not understand the character of their own city and do not realize the unique place that the Sharut woodworkers and carpenters occupy in the city’s business community.

“We would to love to stay where we are, from the location to the labor pool—everything,” says Einhorn. “If you want to kill your industrial area, that’s fine, but there will be repercussions.” 

It is one of lesson of eminent domain abuse few cities learn before it’s too late. Hopefully, Passaic officials will soon come to realize this reality.

[1] “Meredith Mandell, “Developer won’t do apartments; Eastside housing plan left in limbo,” Herald News, December 7, 2006.

[2] Ibid.

[3] All quotes from Mr. Einhorn from a phone interview conducted by Chris Grodecki on May 22, 2007.

Sun Shines On Riviera Beach Once More

The dark cloud of condemnation lingered over the residents of Riviera Beach, Fla., since 2005, when Mayor Michael Brown insisted he would use the city’s eminent domain power to seize property for a private waterfront development. But on March 13, 2007, in an effort to stop those plans, residents voted Brown out of office, making him the latest casualty in the backlash against eminent domain abuse since Kelo. Two weeks later, they reinforced their disapproval of Brown by refusing to elect the slate of three city council candidates he backed.

“People are pinching themselves thinking that Riviera Beach might blossom now,” remarked excited former resident Martha Babson, who was also one of the leading local activists working to stop the abusive plan. “There’s an incredible rush of new blood and new hope.”[1]

The residents, once divided by class and race, united with a 54% majority to elect Thomas A. Masters, a local grassroots activist. A plurality voted for three political neophytes, all opposed to the development plans, to be on the new city council, and the three later won in a run-off election held on March 27.

Also approved were two referenda. The first limited the height of buildings on Singer Island to five stories, while the other limited leases on the island’s development site to 50 years.  The approved charter amendments were a direct reaction against the deal the city made with builder Dan Catalfumo, which included a 50-year lease and plans to build 28-story mixed-use building.[2]

Remarking on the election results, Tony Gigliotti, chairman of the Singer Island Civic Association, told the Palm Beach Post: “Brown was a very divisive figure, and we see progress as more possible now.”[3]

Leaders old and new in the city’s African-American community as well as wealthier condo owners on Singer Island discussed with the new mayor and his council candidates how they would like to see the city increase jobs and redevelop the beach.

Babson said the election brought warring factions together. “Everyone wants the same thing.”

Mayor-elect Masters is promising things will now be different in Riviera Beach. “This wasn’t a white or black issue,” Masters said. “Whether it’s the Ocean Mall on the island or the projects on the mainland, you have to include people in the process, and the previous mayor didn’t do that.”[4]

The high hopes of residents were only further helped by the March 27 run-off election for city council members, when voters chose Master’s allies over those of Brown.  If Brown’s candidates had won, residents feared he might run the city from behind the scenes. 

The people of Riviera Beach have demonstrated to threatened property owners across the nation what is possible when they come together to fight governments willing to take their land telling them it’s for their own good.

“It’s very, very refreshing,” said Babson. “My first thought after hearing the election results was: ‘I could move back now.’”[5]

[1] Telephone interview with Martha Babson, conducted by Chris Grodecki, March 21, 2007.

[2] William Cooper, Jr., “Ocean Mall foiled as voters approve limits,” Palm Beach Post, March 14, 2007.

[3] Quoted in John Lantigua, “At stake in Riviera: Progress – but how, and for whose gain?” Palm Beach Post, March 18, 2007.

[4] Quoted in Lantigua.

[5] Telephone interview with Martha Babson, conducted by Chris Grodecki, March 21, 2007.

Massive Displacement

When it comes to urban renewal, cities have at least two options: they can work from the grassroots level up with residents and community leaders to improve neighborhoods or take a top-down approach by declaring entire neighborhoods “blighted” or “in need of redevelopment” in order to rebuild whatever they see fit.  The City of Camden, N.J., faced with that decision, has taken the latter approach in neighborhood after neighborhood.  Currently, there are at least 15 redevelopment projects at various stages in the city, threatening more than 6,300 properties.  So far, two neighborhoods, Bergen Square and Cramer Hill, have been spared, but only temporarily, because the city’s redevelopment plans were declared illegal based on technicalities. 

The city’s situation typifies that of many former industrial cities that resort to abusing eminent domain rather than working with residents to improve life in the city.  Camden had the opportunity to use other means five years ago when the state of New Jersey gave the city $175 million for job training programs and other incentives to improve the conditions of residents. But little came of that state money.[1]

In 2002, Camden, which is located across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, released its comprehensive Master Plan to transform the city from its post-industrial stagnation to a revitalized tourist destination.  Upon the release of the plan, Camden Mayor Gwendolyn Faison declared, “The Master Plan is a product of planning expertise and continuous community grassroots input.”[2] 

Since then, the city has been moving from neighborhood to neighborhood conducting the requisite “blight” studies before condemning them entirely to make way for development plans created by architectural and engineering consultants.

Unfortunately, the city continues to work against the so-called “community grassroots input” as they implement the Master Plan.  Apparently, Camden’s definition of “input” is keeping details of the plans secret until the public meeting is held, when the plan is “presented” to residents. 

In November 2004, for instance, more than 400 residents protested against several of the plans at Planning Board meeting because the city did not reveal the plan until the meeting took place.  In the case of Bergen Square, a week after the protested meeting, the Board voted unanimously for a $1 billion plan designed by consultants that would require the seizure of 2,193 properties.  (Those same consultants also conducted a “blight study” of the “underutilized properties” the year before.)[3]

A month later, a group of residents in the neighborhood sued so that townhouses and trendy jazz cafes would not replace their homes and businesses.[4]  While the city’s plan called for more than 2,000 new homes and apartments and 500,000 square feet of commercial space, Olga Pomar, the lawyer who represented residents of Bergen Square, said, “The plan calls for … massive displacement … with no guarantee that the replacement homes will be available and realistically affordable to the current residents.”[5]

In March 2006, a judge threw out the Bergen Square plan because they city hadn’t followed proper procedure when it approved the plan.

Now, a year after that court decision, the city has given up on its plan to redevelop Bergen Square.  Camden’s chief operating officer, appointed by the state, said the city would develop a new plan in response to the residents’ complaints.[6]

Although this plan has been scrapped, many of the cities’ plans still remain intact.  Camden remains one of the worst examples of cities zealous to improve the lives of their citizens by taking away their homes and livelihoods. 

[1] Kareem Fahim, “In Crumbling Camden, New Challenges for a Recovery Plan,” The New York Times, November 5, 2006.

[2] FutureCamden, (retrieved March 23, 2007) 3.

[3] Luis Puga,“Residents condemn Bergen Square plan,” The Courier-Post, December 1, 2004.

[4] Fahim.

[5] Alan Guenther, “Plans for Bergen Square ruled invalid by judge,” The Courier-Post, April 1, 2006.

[6] Alan Guenter, “Camden scraps Bergen Square renewal plan,” The Courier-Post, March 22, 2007.

Elections & Eminent Domain Abuse: A Losing Issue For Local Officials To Support (Part 1)

In addition to public awareness campaigns, lawsuits and referenda, local elections have become a key front in the fight against eminent domain abuse. Across the country, local officials are learning that abusive exercises of eminent domain have the potential to enrage and inspire voters in a way few other local issues can. In recent years, unseating pro-eminent domain abuse politicians from office has become an effective tactic for protecting threatened properties.

In the following, citizens used their voting rights to protect what they have worked so hard to own. Voted out pro-eminent domain abuse incumbents are often shocked when the “single issue” of eminent domain costs them their jobs. However, as American voters continue to see respect for property rights as a key factor in choosing their leaders, elected officials need to realize that eminent domain is a “single issue” of which they better take notice.

In this three-part series, we will look at some recent examples of local officials being voted out of office for their pro-eminent domain abuse stances.

North Arlington, New Jersey

In 2006, North Arlington citizens overwhelmingly voted for anti-eminent domain abuse candidates in response to an unpopular redevelopment plan. The plan, which would have resulted in 1,625 new residential units and 50,000 square feet of retail space, would have required the demolition of several warehouses and industrial businesses against the wishes of their owners. Many people saw the deal as questionable, as the city would have been required to spend a large portion of the tax revenue generated by the development on public services associated with it.[1]

In May 2006, the Porete Avenue Property Association, a group of affected property owners, filed a lawsuit seeking to void the agreement between Mayor Russell Pittman and developers. At the time Mayor Pittman said, “This is America. Anybody can sue anybody. I’m confident that the borough will prevail.”[2]

Luckily for owners of threatened properties in North Arlington, Americans are not only allowed to vindicate their rights in court, they are also allowed to vote out anybody who completely ignores what they want. In his party’s 2006 primary, Mayor Pittman lost to Peter Massa 793 votes to 583 votes. The party also nominated Massa’s two anti-eminent domain abuse running mates, Al Granell and Sal DiBlasi, whose business was among those under threat.[3] All three candidates were later elected to the borough council.

Citing the developers’ inability to finance the project without any risk to the borough, now-Mayor Massa terminated the redevelopment contract in April 2007. The developers may sue for damages, but damages are likely all they will get. The new mayor is committed to development everyone can support.[4]

Sunset Hills, Missouri

In 2004, the Board of Alderman in Sunset Hills voted to demolish a 65-acre neighborhood in order to make room for an upscale shopping mall. Owners of the 254 homes in Sunset Manor were outraged, but they felt that there was nothing they could do to keep their homes. The Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo only compounded Sunset Manor residents’ feelings of powerlessness. Many residents had been hopeful that the Court would protect their rights by declaring eminent domain for private use unconstitutional, but unfortunately it did not.

Between the announcement of the developer’s plans and the point at which the deal fell apart, 229 owners agreed to sell. About twenty-five homeowners refused to sell, even though they knew that condemnation was the likely result of rejecting the developer’s terms.

As well as being unjust, the plan has been a complete failure. First, the bank financing the project pulled out due to widespread outrage over the Kelo decision. This left residents who had already agreed to sell in a terrible position. Many were stuck paying two mortgages at once, and some had already gutted their homes.[5]

In April 2006, residents signaled their outrage over the project’s failure by voting out half of the town’s elected officials. John Hunzeker defeated Mayor Jim Hobbs, while Franklin Hardy, Thomas Hrastich, Lynn Flowers, and Frank Gregory replaced four pro-project members on the Board of Aldermen.[6]

Sunset Manor appears safe for now, but the future of the neighborhood is still up in the air. It will cost millions of dollars to restore Sunset Manor to the condition it was in before the redevelopment debacle. Still, residents should feel much safer rebuilding and improving their properties now that most of Sunset Hills’ pro-eminent domain politicians are gone.

[1] Joseph Ax, “Development issue stirs rancor, division; Critics say it’s too late for town to scuttle deal,” Herald News, October 30, 2006.

[2] Peter J. Sampson, “A bid to halt Arlington Valley,” The Record, May 31, 2006.

[3]Massa Defeats Pitman,”

[4] Alexis Tarrazi, “NA terminates agreement with EnCap,” The Leader, April 4, 2007.

[5] T.R. Reid, “Missouri Condemnation No Longer So Imminent,” The Washington Post, September 6, 2005.

[6] Clay Barbour, “Some see a new dawn in Sunset Hills,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 6, 2006.