Beating the Odds

In Arvada, Colo., nothing is a done deal, especially when citizens stand against eminent domain abuse.  Tom Wambolt’s property was not in jeopardy, but that did not stop him from making a big splash when Arvada’s Columbine Lake was condemned.  A concerned citizen, Wambolt fought the City’s attempt to take the nearby lake by eminent domain, pave it and convert it into a truck turn-around for Wal-Mart. 

The story began in 1981, when the City designated the lake and its surrounding area as “blighted,” thereby permitting the government to use eminent domain for so-called “urban renewal.”  The City initiated a 25-year plan, during which the Arvada Urban Renewal Authority (AURA) would facilitate the redevelopment of a 500-acre tract of land including the beautiful lake.  In the mid-1980s, developer Crow-CISI bought the lake along with an adjoining parcel of 35 acres and built Arvada Marketplace.

Subsequently, developer Parker Ojala purchased a 13-acre plot of land nearby for an office park, and later bought the lake property from Crow-CISI.  The new development group built an office park and improved the lake, adding amenities such as walking paths, landscaping, picnic areas and fountains.[1]

Three years later, one of the Marketplace’s anchor tenets, Home Base, went bankrupt and closed its store.  The shopping center manager, Trammell Crow, then worked with the Wal-Mart Corporation to build a superstore on the vacant property.  In order to accommodate parking, Wal-Mart tried to negotiate with Parker Ojala to buy the lake.  But when Ojala decided not to sell the property, Crow urged AURA to acquire the lake property through public force.

But there was a problem.  AURA had already issued a certificate stating that the so-called “blight” had been cured.  Now, professional planners and tax-hungry bureaucrats had decided that a “blighted lake” that the City’s redevelopment agency concluded was no longer “blighted” would better serve the community if it were filled and paved to appease Wal-Mart’s demands.

The case ultimately ended up in court.  Focusing on the lake itself, the trial court ruled that since the lake had not been redeveloped, it was blighted.  In other words, because Crow-CISI and Parker Ojala decided to preserve the lake for its pristine beauty rather than transforming it into a parking lot, the court stated that it ought to be taken from them.

While a court of law ruled against them, trying the case in the court of public opinion proved rather effective.  Attracted by a sign to stop the Arvada Wal-Mart, Wambolt joined a group of concerned citizens and was soon elected president of the “Save Our Lake” group.  He and his band of activists began examining blight studies and urban renewal plans.  The “Save Our Lake” group held rallies every weekend on the street corner of the proposed Wal-Mart site and circulated petitions.  Faced with cynics who believed that citizen activism could not defeat seemingly insurmountable odds, Wambolt repeated his personal mantra:  “The key’s not in the door yet so it’s not a done deal.  It’s not a done deal until they turn the key in the lock.”[2]  Wambolt educated others about eminent domain while he investigated deeper.  He bought comprehensive annual financial reports and used them to demonstrate how the development plan would cut funds from the school budgets—a strategy that helped garner public support for his group’s fight against eminent domain abuse.

The “Save Our Lake” group certainly made noise and attracted much attention, and the newly inspired Columbine Professional Plaza Association appealed the district court’s decision to the Colorado Supreme Court.  Invalidating the original “blight study” from the 1980s, the state Supreme Court ruled that the City could not legally condemn the lake or its surrounding property unless or until the government conducted a new blight study—a partial victory for the property owners.[3]

Wambolt says it best:  “We fought them every step of the way and that’s the way you got to do it.  You can’t give up hope.  Many times I woke up in the middle of the night and I said nope, the key’s not in there.”[4]

Activists fighting eminent domain abuse nationwide no doubt share Wambolt’s perseverance and commitment to protect the fundamental right of individuals to keep what they rightfully own.  In Arvada and across the country, the fight against eminent domain abuse continues, a battle that will persist until the keys to homes, businesses, farms and places of worship remain where they belong—the hands of the owners.

[1] James Lawlor. “Urban Renewal Agency Cannot Take Back Land After Development,” American Planning Association, (available at

[2] Tom Wambolt, Telephone Interview Conducted by Justin Gelfand (Institute for Justice), June 19, 2006. 

[3] Arvada Urban Renewal Authority v. Columbine Professional Plaza Association, Inc. et. Al, No. 03SA329. (Colorado Supreme Court, March 1, 2004).

[4] Tom Wambolt, Telephone Interview Conducted by Justin Gelfand (Institute for Justice), June 19, 2006.