Elections & Eminent Domain Abuse

Ardmore, Pennsylvania

Residents in Lower Merion, Pa., successfully stood up for their properties and their thriving, historic business district by voting out a group of commissioners who wanted to use eminent domain to create upscale housing and retail space. The Ardmore section of Lower Merion Township is home to scores of successful locally owned businesses, and a study by the Urban Land Institute described Ardmore as “a community with a rich history and an extraordinary sense of place offering a distinctive urban character in a lovely suburban setting.” Apparently this was not good enough for city officials.

Business owners circulated petitions, packed public meetings, and filed a lawsuit aimed at stopping the redevelopment. Still, members of the Lower Merion Board of Commissioners dismissed the activists as “just a few raised voices at a public meeting.”[1]

In November 2005, voters responded to the Board of Commissioners’ condescension and disregard for their rights by voting in anti-project candidates. Of the seven new commissioners elected in November 2005, six were against the project. Days later, a federal judge dismissed the property owners’ lawsuit, due in part to the election results.[2]

City officials still hope to undertake some kind of redevelopment project, but they now know that any plan involving eminent domain abuse could cost them their jobs.

Ozark, Missouri

Agitated citizens in Ozark voted longtime Mayor Donna McQuay out of office after her push for redevelopment in the Finley River Redevelopment District. The redevelopment likely would have resulted in eminent domain, as several homeowners did not want to move.

Concerned property owners acted early and boldly to head off any potential takings. They displayed anti-eminent domain abuse signs in their yards and pushed hard for Mayor McQuay to be voted out of office.[3]

The final vote in the April 4, 2007, mayoral election was 669 votes for Mayor McQuay and 1,175 votes for Alderman Dan Watts. Upon being elected, Watts stated that he would take a hard look at any potential redevelopment plans in Ozark. He promised to place priority on community involvement in economic development, as well as on making sure projects have a very good chance of success.[4] A month later, the city council passed and the mayor signed an ordinance taking away the power of the Central Business District TIF commission to use eminent domain “for the purposes of private development except to acquire property or easements for rights of way.”[5]

Coatesville, Pennsylvania

The story of the Coatesville’s attempt to take the Saha family’s farm is one of the most bizarre instances of thwarted eminent domain abuse one could imagine.

The city of Coatesville, of which the farm is not even technically a part, wanted to build a massive recreation center with bowling alleys, skating rinks and a golf course. They decided that the Saha family’s farm was needed for the project, so they tried to buy it. When the family refused, the city initiated condemnation proceedings.[6]

After a series of lawsuits, criminal charges and elections, the Sahas got to keep most of their farm. Still, the legal battle cost the Sahas hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Sahas got their revenge on the city officials who tried to kick them off their farm when all seven city council members who supported the taking were voted out over the course of two election cycles. In 2003, voters removed pro-plan council members Marty Eggleston and Ed Simpson, and in 2005, Carmen Green, William Chertok, David DeSimone and David Griffith were all voted out.[7]

Although the attempted taking itself offended many voters, the major factor in the loss was likely the $7 million in debt the city had racked up in legal and other acquisition costs in trying to get the dubious recreation project off the ground.

[1] Hugh B. Gordon, “A dumb plan for L. Merion,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 1, 2005.

[2] Jeff Price, “Judge dismisses suit on redevelopment plan,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 11, 2005.

[3] Didi Tang, “Ozark faces eminent domain fuss,” The News Leader, July 20, 2006.

[4] Chad Hunter, “Ozark Mayor McQuay loses seat to Watts,” The News Leader, April 4, 2007.

[5] The City of Ozark, Missouri, Ordinance No. 07-031.

[6] Sam Stanley, “Wrecking Property Rights,” Reason, February 2003.