Blaming the Homeowners

Property owners who have lived and worked in their communities their entire lives suddenly fight tooth and nail to protect their properties from so-called “redevelopment” and “revitalization.” These people put on brave faces as they seek to save their childhood homes and small businesses.

But in the development world, these folks are known impersonally and condescendingly as “holdouts,” because they allegedly threaten grandiose development plans—even though they are simply doing what every American should—asserting their rights. However, since developers have always been able to develop without resorting to eminent domain, it’s clear that the true threat comes not from a home or small business owner, but from the government that’s all too willing to use its eminent domain power to transfer property to better connected private owners.

It’s not hard to imagine a world where rights are respected and developers finish their projects without getting the government to kick people out.  It’s the world we live in, one with many examples that demonstrate that when developers tap into their own creative capacity, supposed holdouts become no problem to their development plans. When planners go back to their drawing boards, they often find that while a development may slightly change, it’s never stopped.

In the 1960s, Walt Disney purchased the 28,000-acre site of Disney World in Orlando, Fla., in secret—without the use of eminent domain. The use of secret buyers was important in order to avoid possible “holdouts” morally opposed to major development projects.  Two homeowners did not want to sell the houses they had worked so hard to buy. Disney was forced to re-route a huge drainage canal around one of the plots, and the park continues to surround both properties to this day. Yet no one can argue against the fact that Walt Disney World is now one of the most popular theme parks in the world, while acknowledging that people should be able to keep what they own.

And that’s not all.  Many other private businesses have successfully developed property without forcing regular folks out of their family homes and livelihoods. Here are just a few current cases of innovative planning, which still respect property rights:

  • Trammell Crow Co., a commercial real estate business, had big plans for Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C.  They planned to transform several hundred lots into 120,000 square feet of retail, more than 1,700 apartments and condominiums, and 234,000 square feet of offices. All of the landowners sold except one lone architect named Austin L. Spriggs. The company offered Spriggs up to $3 million for his property, but the offer was simply not enough to compel the architect to start again from his own drawing board.
  • Robert Murphy, a development operations manager for Trammell, stated that, “Mr. Sprigg’s property was a property we needed [, so] we really wanted to try to get him.”[1]

    But in reality, Mr. Sprigg’s property was not necessary to the Trammell plan. The company is currently building around his lot.

  • In the Washington, D.C. neighborhood of Chinatown, a 10-story tower was erected around an old three-story building which houses a tarot card reader and a souvenir shop. The tower is wrapped around the building in an L-shape and blocks daylight, but the tenants of the building are perfectly content.[2]
  • In southeast Washington, D.C., a 14-story Marriott Courtyard Hotel is designed around a, two-story brick corner building. The hotel was still erected without the use of eminent domain and is prosperous to this day.[3]

Even those who work for redevelopment agencies do not believe that eminent domain is needed to force people out of their own properties. Redevelopment agents like Neil Fritz of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., showed proper deference to property owners when he prohibited the condemnation of Van Buren Gardens. So smack-dab in the middle of Fort Lauderdale’s Hollywood Station project stands the white, 12-unit, two-story condo building, Van Buren Gardens. The $120 million Hollywood Station redevelopment project spans four city blocks and is replete with condominiums, lofts, townhouses, internal plazas, gardens, parking garages, rooftop terraces and hot tubs. Buildings will be as tall as 14 stories. A planned 602 residences and 15,550 square feet of retail will be built around Van Buren Gardens, on all four sides.

Van Buren Gardens tenant Jean Joseph asserts, even amidst the falling debris right outside his second floor window, “I’m fine right now. As long as the building is here, I’m here.”

  • A judge in Hollywood, Fla. narrowly ruled for the Mach family, whose property had been condemned for a development project. According to the judge, the City and the developer, Charles “Chip” Abele, in order to exercise their powers of eminent domain, had to prove that they needed the Mach property in order to complete their project. Abele controlled 13 of 14 land parcels on the block and had planned to proceed developing without the Mach property if necessary. Judge Rothschild used this fact as evidence that the Mach family property was not necessary to the redevelopment of the area. Abele is currently converting 13 of the 14 parcels into a 19-story condo and retail tower, and the Mach family’s property remains intact.
  • Also consider Dublin, Ohio, where patience—and not government interference—paid off in the end. A developer and the city planners of Dublin envisioned a large auto mall at an intersection near downtown. The developer was able to acquire most of the land but the owner of a 1.5-acre farm with prime intersection street frontage refused to sell for the price offered. Without the power of eminent domain, the developer merely built around the farm. Within five years, the farmer decided to sell because he did not like to live next to the mall and the developer was able to finish his original plan.[4]

The lesson is simple:  Everyone wins with a little creativity and proper respect of the rights of home and small business owners everywhere.  Developers can build without violating anyone’s constitutional rights.

[1] Lyndsey Layton, “A Solitary Stand at the Precipice,” The Washington Post, May 3, 2006.

[2]  Ibid.

[3]  Ibid.

[4] Jordan Rose, “Eminent Domain Abuse in Arizona: The Growing Threat to Private Property,” Goldwater Institute, Aug. 16, 2002, available at (August 18, 2006).