It is not yours anymore. That is what the Stockbridge, Ga., City Council told Mark and Regina Meeks when it condemned their beloved flower shop to hand it over to a wealthy developer.
In August 2005, the City used its power of eminent domain to condemn the Meeks’ mom-and-pop shop and seven other homes and small businesses to make way for luxury townhouses, upscale shops and offices. It was only after the Georgia couple sued to save their American Dream that the City decided to place a proposed new City Hall building on the Meeks’ property—giving the land-grab the appearance of serving a public use.
Fast-forward to March 2006. Despite overwhelming opposition from home and business owners, the mayor, concerned citizens and community activists, the City Council still voted 3-1 against saving the Meeks’ property from the government’s wrecking ball.
That kind of negotiation—old-fashioned, voluntary, and without the threat of eminent domain—was unacceptable to City officials. Instead, the City Council chose to take private property by government force, and to do so against the will of the true owners.
The City is not truly seeking redevelopment. If that were the goal, City officials would not have intervened in a deal between the Meeks and a private developer planning to revitalize downtown Stockbridge. That kind of negotiation—old-fashioned, voluntary, and without the threat of eminent domain—was unacceptable to City officials. Instead, the City Council chose to take private property by government force, and to do so against the will of the true owners.
Fortunately, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue signed into law a bill this week curbing the abuse of eminent domain—effectively prohibiting the kind of abuse that is happening in Stockbridge. Unfortunately for the Meeks, the law only applies to future abuse. On the state level, legislators appear to realize that the power of eminent domain left unchecked in the hands of local officials all to often results in abuse. Last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London opened the floodgates for eminent domain abuse nationwide, and legislators in 47 states have responded by introducing, considering or enacting bills to further protect the fundamental right of individuals to keep what they rightfully own.
In a recent op-ed, Mark and Regina Meeks wrote, “If we lose our property, please don’t say look at those poor people who just lost their Florist Shop to the City of Stockbridge; instead, realize ‘if they can take his flower shop, my property isn’t safe either.’”
This week, a Henry County judge ruled that the City cannot use eminent domain to take Stockbridge Florist & Gifts, arguing that the City failed to show that the shop would be used for public purposes. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Both sides describe the dispute as a soap opera with several twists and turns. How it will end, neither side will predict.”
The Castle Coalition urges the City of Stockbridge to respect the rights of the Meeks and all other home and business owners in town—and to back off from illegitimate land-grabs in city hall and in court. Using the exact same justification, City officials can abuse their power and take any home, business, farm or place of worship—emphasizing just how important it was for state legislators to protect private property from illegitimate government land grabs and for others nationwide to follow Georgia’s example.
“When this is all over, no matter the outcome, I will be able to look in the mirror and say to myself that I did everything I could to protect my family’s rights,” Mark Meeks wrote. “I hope you will be able to do the same.”
For more information on eminent domain reform in Georgia, check out the Castle Coalition’s Legislative Center.