Hands Off My Farm, Say Two Pennsylvania Farmers

Nancy and Dick Saha asked just one thing of the City of Coatesville: “Save Our Farm.” The couple bought their Pennsylvania farmhouse in 1971, making lifelong dreams of owning a small horse farm a reality. With their five children, they moved into their 250-year-old Chester County residence, which at the time had no heat, electricity or indoor plumbing.

“It had just the bare necessities,” Dick recalled. “We were like a bunch of pioneers.”[1]

Over the next several years, the Sahas restored their home into a charming farmhouse, set upon the beauty and open space of the Pennsylvania countryside. As a result of their hard work, they had created a true family farm; two of their daughters ultimately married and built their family homes on adjacent land. The Saha homestead had undoubtedly become their American Dream and more—that priceless combination of breathtaking ambiance, family values and the chance to see their five grandchildren grow up next door.

That all changed in April 1999, when city officials marched into Dick’s business and notified him that the City intended to condemn his 38.2-acre farm. In a matter of minutes, Dick’s home, barn and lifestyle of 30 years was at stake—all for a golf course and a questionable redevelopment project.

“I was dumbfounded. They told me they were taking my barn, my house, my land. They were taking everything,” Dick said.

The City’s Tactics

On the night of April 12, 1999—the same day tax-hungry bureaucrats threatened the Sahas with eminent domain—the City held a public meeting to vote on the ordinance authorizing condemnation. Adding insult to injury, the City didn’t even tell the Sahas of this meeting, in large part due to the fact that the Saha homestead was actually in Valley Township, not Coatesville. Defenders of eminent domain for private development often contend that public meetings alone are enough to check abuse. For the Sahas, the City was poised to bulldoze a farm that meant everything to its owners, and two horse farmers were all that stood between the government’s wrecking ball and American property rights.

“That just made us madder,” Dick said, emphasizing that they retained legal counsel immediately. “Our lawyer told us we had about a 5 percent or 10 percent chance of winning, but we just didn’t believe it was right what they were doing.”

Within a few days, the Sahas joined together with their neighbors, whose property the City also hoped to take. Together, they launched a legal and political battle to save their farm and everything for which it stood.

From the outset, the Sahas committed themselves to find out everything they could about the City’s redevelopment plans, the proposed project and whether the condemnation was even legal. That’s when they came across the most painful fact; the original plan for the municipal golf course prepared in 1999 did not actually include their farmland. Instead, City officials planned to seize their farm for a “bigger project,” the details of which would never be disclosed.

Over the course of the next few years, City officials began to pursue plans for a mammoth recreation center: an 18-hole golf course, a smaller executive par-3 course, miniature golf, driving range, batting cages, fishing, boating, tennis courts, a clubhouse, a bowling alley and go-carts. Put simply, the City intended to seize the Saha farm for a project that was still in the works, and a redevelopment venture that would be largely privately owned.

Making the condemnation more unjust, the Sahas actually owned property in Valley Township (not Coatesville)—meaning they did not even have voting rights in the jurisdiction taking their property.

“The people taking our land weren’t even our representatives,” Dick said.

That Sahas committed themselves to take whatever legal and political steps necessary to protect a life they deeply cherished, and that’s exactly the course they pursued.

Grassroots Opposition

The Sahas certainly were not alone. Indeed, hundreds of supporters stood by their side as they launched a vigorous opposition to the condemnation plan. Nancy and Dick constantly rallied against the proposed eminent domain abuse, gathered signatures for a number of petitions, organized marches and protests, appealed to their state representatives and spoke out at public meetings.

“We gathered 1,800 petition signatures, all people against the eminent domain for this project,” Dick said.

The Sahas increasingly gained momentum, voicing their support for property rights at practically every town meeting at which the City’s redevelopment plans were discussed.

“We’ve gone to Township and City meetings, practically every meeting that’s around, and before you know it, you’re at another meeting,” Dick said, joking, “I guess these meetings keep me out of trouble.”

The Sahas also created a website, publicizing their eminent domain dispute and bringing attention to their cause. Over the course of the six-year dispute, Nancy and Dick became local icons of the campaign against eminent domain abuse—two honest Americans doing everything they could to keep what was already rightfully their own.

At the municipal level, the Sahas and their neighbors worked to effect change. City Manager Paul Janssen Jr.’s resignation in April 2005 marked the end of an era for the Sahas and the people of Coatesville. Soon after, City officials in line to take Janssen’s place all agreed to drop the Saha condemnation—and largely because they poured their heart and soul against seemingly insurmountable odds.

‘Bittersweet Victory’

In May 2005, Nancy and Dick reached a settlement with the City of Coatesville—after spending $300,000 of their retirement savings and six hard years defending their home from eminent domain abuse. Ultimately, the Sahas had pushed to elect new representatives and the City Council finally responded by agreeing to drop their condemnation plans.

“We voted out all seven council people who voted for this condemnation,” Dick said.

Under the terms of the settlement, the Sahas agreed to sell Coatesville five acres of the their farm, the City agreed to back down from its plan to condemn the rest of the property, and the Sahas gave the City first rights of refusal should they ever choose to sell their property. The bitter irony is the Sahas had offered to give the City those five acres for free when all this began in 1999, and the City refused—a “steep bank that we can’t use for anything,” according to Dick.

“It’s bittersweet,” Dick said. “The City has wasted millions of dollars of taxpayer money and for what? We had a lot to lose, but we figured you have got to stand up for what’s right. It just isn’t the American way of doing things.”

The Fight Continues

Nancy and Dick Saha staged an effective grassroots battle to protect their farm—and they won. But they’re not stopping there. The Sahas have worked tirelessly to fight eminent domain abuse—and they’re still very actively involved in the political struggle. They even attended the Castle Coalition’s December 2005 regional conference in Newark, N.J.

“We were lucky enough to be able to fight them. Think about how many people just can’t afford to fight their local governments,” Dick said.

That’s precisely why he and his wife have sp
oken out against eminent domain for private development, urging legislative reform at all levels of government to stop illegitimate condemnations once and for all.

“We send troops all over the world to protect people’s rights and we don’t even have fundamental property rights at home,” Dick said. “I just don’t understand why some politicians just don’t realize how serious this is.”

Since the U.S. Supreme Court opened the floodgates nationwide to eminent domain abuse in Kelo v. City of New London, it’s now more important than ever to stand up for property rights—and the Sahas are certainly carrying that torch.

Throughout the United States, hardworking Americans are facing disputes similar to the Sahas. And Dick had profoundly valuable advice.

“The best thing is to try to get a group of people who are sympathetic and see if you can change the minds of your local officials. If not, go and try to get a group to replace the people who are in charge. That’s what we did in Coatesville.”

He added, “Kelo galvanized the nation against eminent domain abuse. If you think something is un-American and wrong, you have to stand up for what is right.”

For more information, visit http://www.saveourfarm.com.

[1] Note: All quotations in this feature are from a personal interview with Dick Saha conducted by Justin Gelfand (December 12, 2005).