When it comes to eminent domain, the meek definitely do not inherit the earth. If you want to prevent the condemnation of your property, you will have to turn up the heat and make the condemnation into a major political and public relations headache for the powers that be. When you speak out and write against eminent domain abuse, make sure that you remain truthful and accurate. After all, you already have the moral high ground, and that is crucial to winning the public’s support.
This section suggests some of the actions you can take to draw attention to your situation. But you will undoubtedly think of others. The more creative you are, the more people will remember your efforts and your cause.
Speak out at public meetings
|Courtesy of The Evening Bulletin|
|Ardmore, Penn., activists testify at a public meeting in Philadelphia.|
Attending public meetings can be boring and repetitive, but it is important to let politicians and bureaucrats know that they will not sneak this project by without their citizens noticing. Bring as many people as you can to every single meeting, and speak at each one. At meetings, just as at every other step of the way, be sure to speak to the heart of the issue, be concise and avoid going off on tangents. Some meetings will be more important than others, and some meetings may even have legal significance. Be sure to find out the impact of each meeting. In a few states, for example, you must present evidence against a project at a particular meeting if you wish to challenge it later. That is not necessary in most states, but it is important to get this information in advance, as advised in the first chapter of this Guide.
You can also put various documents into the record at a public hearing. That means that the city council or redevelopment agency (whoever is holding the hearing) must consider your items. A picture can speak louder than words, so you may want to take pictures of your home or business, your kids playing on the lawn, or your employees at your business. You can give the city a videotape of the area or other documents showing what a positive force your business is on the community. Be imaginative.
Hold a rally
If you think you have enough people, organize a rally in front of city hall, in front of the offices of the government body doing the condemnation, or in front of the developer’s office. Be sure to get any assembly permits that you need. Distribute flyers before the event. Carry signs—no more than 5-8 words. You should have only a few speakers, and each should speak for no more than a few minutes. They should tell who they are, what their personal attachment is to their property, and why they want to stay.
Organize other events
Be creative. There are all sorts of events you can hold, depending on the project itself. For example, in New Rochelle, N.Y., the city had plans to condemn homes and businesses for an IKEA. The activists organized a demonstration outside the Swedish embassy. They also held a “drive-in,” where they demonstrated the effect of increased traffic in the area based on the amount of increased traffic estimated in the development plan. In New London, Conn., activists invited members of the press to tour the area, and one of the restaurants slated for condemnation created a special menu on which all items were named after people involved in the project. In Mississippi, activists held a prayer vigil before an important day in court. In Minnesota, one elderly woman invited the members of the city council over for tea. And, in Lakewood, Ohio, residents held a “Blighted Block Party.”
These events can also serve to raise money to ensure that you have the funds necessary to effectively wage your grassroots campaign. Be sure to tell us about these events in advance and we’ll put them on our website for everyone to see.
Create a website
These days, a very easy way to tell people about the possibility of eminent domain is to create a website. You can post stories about the neighborhood and show the community pictures of the properties the government wants to take. This method allows you to control the content and message—an ability you don’t always have in other forums. You can also use the site to advertise your rallies and events.
If you’re not familiar with the ins-and-outs of web design, there are a number of user-friendly (and free!) websites that take you through the process, every step of the way. Perhaps start by checking out www.blogger.com or www.geocities.com. Your website can be as simple or as fancy as you like—the important thing is to make your information available to the public. It will also save you room on your flyers and signs, since you won’t need to explain all the details of the situation, but can instead direct people to your site.
To get some ideas, take a look at the websites for local grassroots organizations on some of the state pages at maps.CastleCoalition.org.
You should fill your neighborhood with signs that speak out about the abuse of eminent domain in the community. Design a simple sign to put in the window of local businesses and homes. Such signs should have no more than 5-10 words. Make your own or buy some from the Institute for Justice’s Freedom Market (www.IJ.org/freedommarket).
You should also consider using other advertising methods. Lawn signs can be very effective and low-cost. For example, in Ardmore, Penn., a local merchant painted the side of his building, which happens to face the local government building. In Pittsburgh, billboards effectively conveyed the anti-eminent domain abuse message. Whatever method you choose, it must be short and sweet.
Start a petition
If you are thinking about spreading a petition, you should first explore the reasons a petition can be used. You may have only one chance to gather a large number of signatures, so you need to have a specific goal in mind. If it’s possible to start a local initiative or referendum in your community by gathering petition signatures, be sure your petition meets all legal requirements and specifications (see page 24). You’ll probably need to talk with an election attorney to be certain. Where an initiative or referendum is not possible, petitions can serve as a conversation starter—a vehicle to raise awareness about eminent domain abuse and explain the local situation. It is important to note that other than getting initiatives and referenda on the ballot, petitions generally do not have legal status, and this is typically not the best use of time if your resources are limited.
If you do decide to start a petition outside the initiative or referendum context, it should have a short statement to which people will be signing their name, like “I am opposed to using eminent domain to take [your area] and give it to [the private developer].” There should be a space for people to identify their city and state as well. Again, while this kind of petition does not have legal status, it can give you a sense of public sentiment, garner media attention and possibly give politicians some pause. If you get a lot of signatures for your petition, be sure to introduce it into the record at one of the public meetings and give copies to the government officials who will be voting and, of course, the press.