From Hardship to Victory

Scott Mahan accepts the Castle Coalition's David Award on behalf of the Save Ardmore Coalition.

Almost two years after the Kelo decision, which meant the loss of his home, Mike Cristofaro, a former New London, Conn., homeowner, came to the national capital region to once again tell his story—this time at the Castle Coalition’s sixth annual National Conference.

“At one time, I might have been the proven hero in this fight,” he told the gathering of property owners currently under the threat of eminent domain abuse, as well as neighborhood activists. “But now it’s you.”

Nearly 50 property owners from both big cities and small towns across the country gathered together on the weekend of June 8-10 to learn how to move from hardship to victory in their battles against eminent domain abuse.

Attendees heard not only from Institute for Justice staff but also from property owners who have successfully overcome the violation of their property rights for the sake of economic development. They acknowledged it may be a difficult and lengthy struggle, but anyone can triumph with organization, dedication and a little creativity.

“Use something negative in your situation and turn it around,” explained Julie Wiltse, a Lakewood, Ohio, homeowner whose neighborhood came under the threat of eminent domain through a bogus “blight” designation. “We had a ‘blighted block party’ and a ‘blighted chili cook-off’ to determine the ‘best blighted chili’ in Lakewood.”

Scott Mahan of the Save Ardmore Coalition emphasized the importance of persevering with the help of allies in the community and with the support of a grassroots organization. “Use your individual strengths,” said Mahan regarding setbacks. “When you have a loss, feed off of your frustrations.”

Both Mahan and Wiltse, who participated in an activist panel along with Syracuse, N.Y., business owner Phil Jakes-Johnson, reminded property owners to always keep their cool and remain polite in the face of strong-willed politicians and opponents.

Attendees also heard about the significance of property rights from experts from around the country in politics, academia and the media. Both Chris Norby, Chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, and Dr. Mindy Fullilove, research psychiatrist at the Columbia University Medical Center, spoke about the importance of property rights in a larger moral and societal context.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” said Norby. “It’s not just a moral principle—it’s an economic principle.”

Norby explained how the maxim guided him to reject the use of eminent domain for economic development. He also reminded attendees to keep the principle in mind not only when arguing for their rights but also when interacting with local officials.

Citing the fact that a community consists of more than just the physical materials that make up houses, streets and trees, Dr. Fullilove described the effects of eminent domain on a community. She is the author of Root Shock as well as the first volume of the Castle Coalition’s Perspective Series, Eminent Domain and African Americans: What Price the Commons?

“If we understood what a neighborhood really is, we’d be less blithe about destroying them,” said Dr. Fullilove. “If you’ve destroyed people’s social network, you’ve got a great social cost.”

Harry Boomer, an anchor at Cleveland’s WOIO 19 Action News and member of the widely anticipated media panel, described the added societal costs of eminent domain and commented on the consequences of what the conference attendees were doing in fighting the abuse of eminent domain. Boomer said, “When something infects one neighborhood, it will affect another neighborhood. Crime is transferable—if you can stop it here, you can stop it there.”

Cristofaro later echoed Boomer’s comments telling all those present, “The lightning bolt that went across the nation [because of Kelo] has meant our fight hasn’t been for nothing.”

“We need to have our property rights back,” he said. “Remember, you’re not just fighting for yourself, you’re fighting for all of us.”

Be part of the fight. Join more than 6,000 others across the nation as part of the Castle Coalition.

Michael Cristofaro discusses what kept him motivated during his six-year-long battle against the City of New London.

Nancy Esposito from Norwalk, Connecticut, and Barb Van Slambrouck from Des Plaines, Illinois.

Arthur and Janice Garabedian from Niagara Falls, New York.

Lumi Michelle Rolley from Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn teaches participants how to build a website.