'Nine Months of Hell'

Bowing to increasing pressure from local activists, New York’s historic town of Cheektowaga, a suburb of Buffalo, backed down last week from a controversial redevelopment plan. If passed, Developer Dominic Piestrak’s proposal would have demolished 300 homes and 700 apartments, wiping out the entire residential community of Cedargrove Heights against the will of its landowners and tenants. The idea was to replace the entire 154-acre privately owned neighborhood with a wealthier one—single-family homes, brownstones, row houses, shops, parks, restaurants and offices. Practically all of the land seized by eminent domain would have ended up in the hands of more affluent home and business owners.

Thanks in large part to a grassroots community group called the Cedargrove Heights Neighborhood Action Committee, the Town Board dropped consideration of the proposal. Wearing red shirts announcing their opposition to the use of eminent domain, this core group of residents appeared at almost every town meeting since February. They utilized the Castle Coalition’s Eminent Domain Abuse Survival Guide and enhanced their strategies at the group’s Washington, D.C., conference in July.

Amidst some cautious celebration, many residents of Cedargrove Heights voiced their anger and frustration with the town’s actions in this matter.

“You put this community through nine months of hell,” activist Janine Szretter voiced to the Town Board. “What are we, a dumping ground? We’re not scum. How dare you let this go on? How would you like to go to sleep not knowing if you’re going to have a house?”  

For almost a year, that is exactly what many residents of this neighborhood did. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kelo v. City of New London that governments can use eminent domain to take homes and businesses for higher tax uses, landowners throughout the nation have led similar struggles to keep their homes and businesses. While a few neighborhoods have been saved with the help of successful grassroots organizing, it is an unfair and unjust uphill battle every step of the way.  Property owners shouldn’t have to vindicate rights that shouldn’t be threatened in the first place.

For the time being, Cedargrove Heights appears to be safe from eminent domain abuse. However, some members of the citizen activist group worry that the proposal could resurface. As Joan Adams, President of the Neighborhood Action Committee, told the Buffalo News, “If it does, you’re in for another fight, because we’re going to be saving our community.”  And—until the law is changed so that the fate of Americans’ homes and businesses doesn’t lie in the hands of tax-hungry bureaucrats and land-hungry developers—the Castle Coalition will be there too.