From Hardship to Victory

Scott Mahan accepts the Castle Coalition's David Award on behalf of the Save Ardmore Coalition.

Almost two years after the Kelo decision, which meant the loss of his home, Mike Cristofaro, a former New London, Conn., homeowner, came to the national capital region to once again tell his story—this time at the Castle Coalition’s sixth annual National Conference.

“At one time, I might have been the proven hero in this fight,” he told the gathering of property owners currently under the threat of eminent domain abuse, as well as neighborhood activists. “But now it’s you.”

Nearly 50 property owners from both big cities and small towns across the country gathered together on the weekend of June 8-10 to learn how to move from hardship to victory in their battles against eminent domain abuse.

Attendees heard not only from Institute for Justice staff but also from property owners who have successfully overcome the violation of their property rights for the sake of economic development. They acknowledged it may be a difficult and lengthy struggle, but anyone can triumph with organization, dedication and a little creativity.

“Use something negative in your situation and turn it around,” explained Julie Wiltse, a Lakewood, Ohio, homeowner whose neighborhood came under the threat of eminent domain through a bogus “blight” designation. “We had a ‘blighted block party’ and a ‘blighted chili cook-off’ to determine the ‘best blighted chili’ in Lakewood.”

Scott Mahan of the Save Ardmore Coalition emphasized the importance of persevering with the help of allies in the community and with the support of a grassroots organization. “Use your individual strengths,” said Mahan regarding setbacks. “When you have a loss, feed off of your frustrations.”

Both Mahan and Wiltse, who participated in an activist panel along with Syracuse, N.Y., business owner Phil Jakes-Johnson, reminded property owners to always keep their cool and remain polite in the face of strong-willed politicians and opponents.

Attendees also heard about the significance of property rights from experts from around the country in politics, academia and the media. Both Chris Norby, Chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, and Dr. Mindy Fullilove, research psychiatrist at the Columbia University Medical Center, spoke about the importance of property rights in a larger moral and societal context.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” said Norby. “It’s not just a moral principle—it’s an economic principle.”

Norby explained how the maxim guided him to reject the use of eminent domain for economic development. He also reminded attendees to keep the principle in mind not only when arguing for their rights but also when interacting with local officials.

Citing the fact that a community consists of more than just the physical materials that make up houses, streets and trees, Dr. Fullilove described the effects of eminent domain on a community. She is the author of Root Shock as well as the first volume of the Castle Coalition’s Perspective Series, Eminent Domain and African Americans: What Price the Commons?

“If we understood what a neighborhood really is, we’d be less blithe about destroying them,” said Dr. Fullilove. “If you’ve destroyed people’s social network, you’ve got a great social cost.”

Harry Boomer, an anchor at Cleveland’s WOIO 19 Action News and member of the widely anticipated media panel, described the added societal costs of eminent domain and commented on the consequences of what the conference attendees were doing in fighting the abuse of eminent domain. Boomer said, “When something infects one neighborhood, it will affect another neighborhood. Crime is transferable—if you can stop it here, you can stop it there.”

Cristofaro later echoed Boomer’s comments telling all those present, “The lightning bolt that went across the nation [because of Kelo] has meant our fight hasn’t been for nothing.”

“We need to have our property rights back,” he said. “Remember, you’re not just fighting for yourself, you’re fighting for all of us.”

Be part of the fight. Join more than 6,000 others across the nation as part of the Castle Coalition.

Michael Cristofaro discusses what kept him motivated during his six-year-long battle against the City of New London.

Nancy Esposito from Norwalk, Connecticut, and Barb Van Slambrouck from Des Plaines, Illinois.

Arthur and Janice Garabedian from Niagara Falls, New York.

Lumi Michelle Rolley from Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn teaches participants how to build a website.

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.

After Saving Ardmore, Coalition is Honored by Its Former Foe

In 2005, property owners in the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore came together to form the Save Ardmore Coalition (SAC) to oppose Lower Merion Township’s plan to bulldoze businesses in Ardmore’s historic downtown as part of a revitalization plan.  In the face of SAC’s campaign, the Township backed down.  Now, SAC has received an award from the township.  On May 15, 2007, the Historical Architecture Review Board of Lower Merion Township awarded SAC with the 2007 Historical Preservation Award for Stewardship.

SAC’s efforts to protect small business owners from eminent domain abuse also helped protect the historic character of downtown Ardmore.  As they brought attention to their situation in local and national media, SAC began cleaning up their community by organizing clean-up efforts, repainting buildings, and removing deteriorating awnings and signs.  Their tactics included a minor restoration of the façade of the Hu Nan Restaurant’s building and cleaning graffiti from area buildings—all part of a plan to take away anything the township could use against business owners to make a bogus claim of blight in the wealthy suburb’s downtown.

Although it would seem unlikely that the township would reward its former adversary, SAC’s vast network of support from their successes made it impossible for the township to deny their contribution to the community.

In his letter of recommendation, U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach praised SAC’s success not only on a local level but also on a national level.

“It has battled the destruction of historic resources by the municipal exercise of eminent domain,” he wrote.  “It has also promoted legislation at state and federal levels of government to combat the improper taking of private property.”[1]

Their state representative, Daylin Leach, said SAC’s defense of its property rights was a model other citizen groups throughout the country should emulate.

“They were never over-the-top, and they never failed to conduct their campaign with dignity and respect,” wrote Rep. Leach.  “If we can get a group like SAC in every community, it would be difficult for people to develop in a way that doesn’t preserve the quality of life.”[2]

These and other letters of recommendation praised SAC’s ability to become a respected grassroots community organization in the face of stiff opposition from local government.

Since their victory in Ardmore, SAC has extended its efforts to spread awareness about property rights and the ability to redevelop with eminent domain beyond just Ardmore to other communities and neighborhoods in southeastern Pennsylvania.

In his letter nominating SAC for the award, SAC Vice President Scott Mahan summarized the organization’s mission as it continues to be voice for the citizens who want to be involved in the redevelopment of their communities:  they will continue to spread the message of the importance of balancing historic preservation with development.[3]

The Castle Coalition agrees with the state Senate of Pennsylvania:  SAC “truly serves as a role model worthy of emulation” for all grassroots organizations battling the abuse of the eminent domain.[4]

To find out more about the Save Ardmore Coalition, visit their website:

[1] Rep. Jim Gerlach 6th Congressional District of Pennsylvania, “Letter of Recommendation” to the Historical Architecture Review Board of Lower Merion Township, March 12, 2007.

[2] Rep. Douglas Leach 149th Legislative District, “Letter of Recommendation” to the Historical Architecture Review Board of Lower Merion Township March 15, 2007.

[3] Scott Mahan, “Application for Lower Merion Township Historical Preservation Award nominating The Save Ardmore Coalition,” March 16, 2007.

Senate of Pennsylvania, “Letter of Congratulation” to the Save Ardmore Coalition, May 8, 2007.

15 Businesses, 56 Homes Blighted in Sugar Creek, Missouri

Penelope Marth lives in a home, along with her parents, on South Harris in Sugar Creek, Mo., a small town of 8,900 outside of Kansas City. It is a home that her grandfather built decades ago, and one city officials would like to see disappear—along with 56 other homes and 15 businesses, or about 5 percent of current residents.

In May 2007, property owners in this quaint neighborhood of middleclass homes received letters from Sugar Creek telling them that the city would be purchasing their property and if they did not agree to sell, the city would forcibly acquire their properties by eminent domain.

Replacing the Marths and their other long-established neighbors would be a shopping center, including a supermarket and a yet to be determined anchor—most likely one of the big box variety. Even though the city does not yet own the properties, it has already entered into a lease agreement with a supermarket chain for the so-called Sugarland development.[1]

The reason for the new development is predictable: the city wants more tax revenue, which the mayor sees as a public use.[2]

To cover the estimated $42 million cost of the project, the city declared the Marths’ neighborhood “blighted” in order to establish a Tax Increment Financing District (TIF). Under Missouri law, a city can invoke eminent domain only if an area is deemed blighted.

Unfortunately for Missouri property owners, the definitions of blight are so broad that successful businesses like those in Clayton, Mo., or Homer Tourkakis’ dentist office in Arnold, both in suburban St. Louis, can be declared blighted, even though they are perfectly fine, well-maintained properties.

The planner hired by the city to conduct the blight study admitted to a local paper as much. “Everybody has their own conceptions of what blight looks like…but frequently that’s not the same as what the state statute provides.”[3] Blight is clearly in the eye of the beholder.

In the case of Sugar Creek, the planner cited potholes, curbs in need of new paint, cracked sidewalks, and utility lines covered in brush—in other words, the neighborhood is “blighted” because the city has neglected its responsibility for the upkeep of its own infrastructure. One resident, who tried to get the city to fix a pothole next to his driveway, was ignored.[4] Additionally, if residents of the neighborhood tried to fix those problems, they would violate the law, according to IJ attorney Scott Bullock.

According to comments city officials made over the summer, Sugar Creek had hoped to start construction on the development by the end of this year. So far, the mere threat of eminent domain has been enough to scare at least 17 property owners into accepting the city’s offers.[5]

According to Marth, homeowners were told in March 2007 that they would have to settle on prices during the summer and vacate their properties by November 1, 2007. As of late October, a handful of longtime residents continue to maintain their homes with the same care they always have. Marth indicated that she would like to see development in the city; she objects to the city’s tactics and methods.

“I’m not against redevelopment,” she told city officials in June. “I’m against eminent domain abuse.”[6]

The Castle Coalition has been helping the property owners since May, and Institute for Justice attorney Scott Bullock visited residents in October. As a result of his visit and the positive reaction from local residents, he sent a letter to city officials on October 22 pointing out the fact that, as a non-charter city, Sugar Creek does not have eminent domain authority under the state constitution.

The eminent domain authority of small Missouri cities like Sugar Creek is the issue in Tourkakis’ suit against the city of Arnold. So long as the Missouri Supreme Court is considering this question, Sugar Creek should not be able to threaten its citizens with eminent domain because it is not clear whether the city actually has the power of eminent domain in the first place.

No matter the outcome of that case, Eleanor Miller, who moved to her house in Sugar Creek in 1948, had a clear response to the city: “I’m not going to leave.”[7]

Meanwhile, like Miller and the Marths, residents in the shadow of the Sugarland development continue to sit and wait, wondering if the city will force them out of the homes they have lived in for decades.

[1] Hugh S. Welsh, “Attorney takes up case; Eminent domain expert joins Sugar Creek fight,” The Examiner, October 3, 2007.

[2] Megan Rolland, “Sugar Creek tells homeowners it wants their land for new development, Kansas City Star, July 8, 2007.

[3] David Martin, “Grocery Sacked; Even in a tiny town like Sugar Creek there’s no escape from TIF traumas,” Pitch Weekly, May 10, 2007.

[4] Rolland.

[5] Brian Burns, “Sugar Creek development angers some longtime residents,” Kansas City Star, October 3, 2007.

[6] Quoted in Joe Parmon, “Sugar Creek delays decision on Sugarland; Residents concerned about eminent domain,” The Examiner, June 12, 2007.

[7] Welsh.

Are You Fit to Own Your Property?

The City of Glassboro, NJ Says No

Suleiman Arifi escaped from communist Yugoslavia in the 1960s, after serving a three-year sentence in prison for opposing communism, and sought refuge in the United States. However, what he thought was the "American Dream" has turned into a nightmare.

Arifi has owned a combination commercial and residential property in downtown Glassboro since 1991, but the borough has decided that he is no longer worthy of keeping the property that he leases to a salon/spa. In March 2007, borough officials filed papers to acquire the property, which includes two apartments. Because Arifi has lived with his wife in one of those apartments for the past ten years, Glassboro would not only be taking his livelihood and major source of income, but his home as well.

"I live here and I'm making a business here," Arifi told the Gloucester County Times in July. "How can they do this to me in America?"[1]

The borough would like to see the property in the hands of Arifi's tenant Turning Heads Salon & Spa as part of "an overall redevelopment plan" for the area—though no one really knows what that plan is.

Town officials approached Arifi about leasing to the spa in 2005. There was a dispute over building improvements, but when Arifi applied for funds to improve the building's facade through a federally-funded program administered by the borough, he was denied due to other code violations the city had found.[2]

Arifi, who holds a M.A. in sociology and a Ph.D from a Turkish university, relies on the revenue from renting out the property in order to makes ends meet. He suffers from several heart conditions, including severe coronary artery disease, and doctors have said that stress, like that caused by fighting for your home, will threaten his life.  In October, Arifi was hospitalized due to his medical condition at the same time he was supposed to file official protest against the condemnation. Luckily, New Jersey Superior Court judge gave him additional time, until Nov. 18, to file papers opposing the condemnation.

Because the borough has not gone after neighboring businesses, Arifi believes the borough is going after him because a man of his age and with his poor health is easy to take advantage of or exploit.[3]

Whether or not that is true, Glassboro does not seem to have a problem threatening the life and livelihood of one of its residents. Indeed, borough officials seem to be fairly flippant about development plans in the first place.

Glassboro has three other development projects in various stages, and they have shown no signs of success. In 2000, 25 properties were taken for a townhouse project that has not moved beyond a symbolic groundbreaking ceremony. An almost decade-old plan with Rowan University that includes a hotel and conference center has seen little progress. Finally, the borough's revitalization efforts have improved one building but have lost several businesses even after the buildings that housed them received re-hab funds. [4]

As for Arifi’s property, the borough’s economic development attorney said it was inconsistent with the city’s vision of the area.

“My understanding is that, for maintaining it as a use that’s consistent with the area, the borough thought it should acquire it,” James Maley said.[5]

Usually towns try to claim a property is “underutilized,” but borough officials in Glassboro just do not think the property fits—except that officials do not want the property put to a different use. They simply want a different owner.

Even the local paper thinks the town’s reasons for the taking are absurd. In April, they opined, “Borough officials say ‘service-oriented businesses’ are slated for this part of West High Street. With a tailor’s shop, a bakery, an insurance office and a barber nearby, Arifi’s building, now occupied by Turning Heads Salon & Spa and apartments, seems to fit fine.”[6]

Meanwhile, residents of Glassboro are still trying to figure out why exactly borough officials get to determine who gets to own property in their town, and they wonder how many other property owners the borough thinks are unfit to own their own property.

[1] Stephanie Brown, “Salon joins county debate on eminent domain,” Gloucester County Times, July 8, 2007.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Matthew Ralph, “Resident steels himself for land fight,” Gloucester County Times, March 29, 2007, at A-1.

[4] Gloucester County Times, “Give reason for eminent domain,” Gloucester County Times, April 2, 2007, at A-10.

[5] Brown.

[6] Ibid.

Reform Sprouts Up in the Garden State as New Jersey Courts Trim Down Eminent Domain

court.jpgBesides being one of the worst eminent domain abusers in the nation, New Jersey currently has no form of eminent domain reform on the books. Given that, the state got a well-deserved “F” in our 50-State Report Card.  Before 2007, local municipalities could invoke eminent domain on properties they deemed, usually without the need for much evidence, “underutilized”.  Last year, however, the New Jersey courts finally set a few minor limits on the rampant abuse of eminent domain:


In June, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided Gallenthin v. Paulsboro, which prevents cities from seizing land solely because it is underutilized.  The decision also contains a minimum standard for the “substantial evidence” test, required to designate “blight.”  Within two months, three lower courts have taken the supreme court’s decision and applied it to decisions—all favoring property owners.

The borough of Paulsboro wanted to seize a mostly undeveloped 63-acre property owned by the Gallenthin family along the Delaware River to redevelop the borough’s waterfront.  Much of the land is state-designated protected wetlands, but the rest has been used as a site for dredging and growing cattle feed.  Despite the activity and protected status, the borough declared the Gallenthins’ property blighted solely because it was underutilized.  The New Jersey Supreme Court found fault with Paulsboro’s argument for the taking, saying any property could be taken because a city said it was underutilized.


Since Gallenthin, three lower courts across the state have cited the decision in ruling against municipalities that have declared, incorrectly, properties “in need of redevelopment.”  In each case, the municipality failed to meet minimum standards of evidence showing that those areas were actually “in need of redevelopment.” 


Full article here.  

Columbia's Harlem Takeover

Like all big cities, New York is a unique tapestry of neighborhoods.  The Manhattanville neighborhood in West Harlem is one of those unique neighborhoods, and it is currently threatened by one of the city’s oldest private institutions, Columbia University, located next door in Morningside Heights.  Yet Manhattanville has its own history and character that have evolved through the residents and small business owners who live and work there, a history and character that Columbia’s plans for a biotech park will destroy. 

In a radio interview in March 2007, the University’s president Lee Bollinger refused to acknowledge the importance of these small businesses that call Manhattanville home.  Instead, distinguishing between residents and “property owners,” he said, “These people who own property…do not live in Harlem and are not part of the Harlem community.”[1]

That charge is false.  Although they may not reside there, they most certainly are a vital part of what makes that neighborhood unique and special.

Anne Whitman is one of the business owners who, in spite of Bollinger’s dismissive attitude, undoubtedly lends Manhattanville its character and maintains its history.  Whitman is president and owner of Hudson North American, a moving and storage company whose clients include Columbia students as well as the university itself.  The company caters especially to artists and designers in New York, the art capital of the country, if not the world.

“What bothers me most is that they’re so arrogant,” said Whitman as she balked at accusations, like those of Bollinger, claiming she is an outsider.[2]

Her father bought the company’s property in 1972, and she continues the business, now in its third generation.  The company has established itself as an important business in the community. Whitman employs 25 local residents in the business, making Hudson American a 100 percent women and minority business.  

However, Whitman has also helped preserve the historical aspect of Manhattanville’s character. Whitman runs Hudson American out of a building that used to house the stables of the Sheffield Farm dairy, a major milk distributor in the late 19th century.  Because of its importance, the building is currently on New York state’s and the national register of historic places.  Columbia’s plan would not only take away the business from the community, it would destroy the building as well.

Manhattanville, on the other hand, has been the key to Whitman’s success. The business’ location at the junction of three major truck routes close to midtown is essential to the company’s success.  According to Whitman, her location makes her unique within her industry. 

 “Without that, I’m just another storage firm, ” she said in 2005.[3] 

Nevertheless, Columbia has told Whitman that her business does not fit into their expansion plans and, therefore, it would be “impossible” for her to remain in Manhattanville.[4] 

Additionally, Bollinger told the WNYC radio audience that the future of American cities does not include light industrial businesses like Whitman’s.[5]   If Bollinger has his way, Manhattanville will not have much of a future as a unique neighborhood in New York City because businesses like Whitman’s, which will all be destroyed for the plans of a private university, contribute to its culture as well.

In addition to hiring local residents, Whitman’s property also contributes to the neighborhood’s unique artist community.  When Bollinger mentioned that Columbia would bring creativity to Manhattanville, Whitman described the artists’ community that has developed in the neighborhood due to the inexpensive space available on her property.

“We have gilding, carving, restoration of investment-quality antiques…by high end artisans,” Whitman told Bollinger.  “If you went up and down the street, you wouldn’t even know this stuff was going on inside the building.”[6]

It is exactly this “stuff” that happens every day not only inside Whitman’s business but also in the wider community that Columbia’s plans are threatening to destroy, according to Nellie Hester Bailey, co-founder and director of the Harlem Tenants Council. 

“Anne’s struggle is linked to the community,” she said. “She has created a business that is truly commendable in its reflection of the ethnic and racial diversity of the community.”[7]

Whitman’s investment in and dedication to the Manhattanville community has made it clear that she will not be intimidated by threats of eminent domain.  Instead, she wants to remain in the neighborhood, contributing to both its social and economic well-being.

When offered $4 million by Columbia for her property, Whitman made it clear that has no plans to move and will fight until the end, telling The New York Times, “Remember that man who stood in front of the tank at Tiananmen Sqaure? That’s me.”[8] 

[1] “Growing Pains,” The Brian Lehrer Show, WNYC, New York City, March 8, 2007.           

[2] Interview with Anne Z. Whitman conducted by Chris Grodecki, June 9, 2007.

[3] Andrew Marks, “Six firms that won’t sell out to Columbia; Convenience, history key factors in wanting to stay in West Harlem,” Crain’s New York Business, January 17, 2005.

[4] Timothy Williams, “Land Dispute Pits Columbia Vs. Residents in West Harlem,” New York Times, November 20, 2006.

[5] “Growing Pains.”

[6] Ibid.

[7] Intreview with Nellie Hester Bailey conducted by Chris Grodecki June 9, 2007.

[8] Williams.

Corporation Loses in Bid to Get Clayton, Mo. to Kick Out Local Businesses

Even as most states move to reform their eminent domain laws, local governments continue to rely heavily on broad interpretations of blight statutes to justify seizing private property for private economic benefit.

In the city of Clayton, Mo., a wealthy suburb of St. Louis, the town board found five upscale commercial buildings in the downtown area “economically underutilized” and, therefore, “blighted” in order for a nearby development corporation to construct another so-called “mixed-use” project.[1]  

After losing in the trial court, three of the property owners won a victory in the Missouri Court of Appeals, which sent the case to the state’s supreme court after determining that there was no substantial evidence that the condemned properties were a social liability, a necessary requirement for an area to be “blighted,” according the Missouri’s eminent domain reform laws passed in 2006.[2]

The city had transferred condemnation powers to Centene Corporation, a managed health care corporation that has plans to build a new corporate headquarters up the street from the block of buildings. The land is not needed for the office buildings, but Centene thought it would take advantage of the city’s early 2005 request for proposals to “encourage the highest and best use of commercial properties in the central business district.”[3]

What is currently there—two real estate offices, a spa and an office building—apparently were not good enough for the city’s mayor and aldermen, who unanimously voted to allow the use of eminent domain to seize the properties in December 2005 in the hope that the new development would bring more tax revenue. 

In response, the property owners gathered five times the number of signatures required for a petition to hold a public vote on the matter–a vote local officials subsequently tried to thwart.[4]

Clayton residents were finally allowed to vote in August 2006, when 71 percent of voters favored restricting eminent domain when used “in conjunction with any economic development or redevelopment project.” [5] Although the aldermen said they would be “guided” by the vote, they noted it was only an advisory measure as they moved forward with condemnations.

Three of the property owners took the city to court. A circuit court judge ruled in January 2007 that the city did not act improperly when it approved the ordinances giving Centene eminent domain powers.[6]

After a circuit court ruled in favor of the city, one of the property owners, David Danforth explained why he would continue his battle in court: “I’d love for them to build it if they buy the property. For me, it’s more of a philosophical battle. I think eminent domain is a terrible thing.”[7]

In continuing the battle in the courts, Danforth and his fellow property owners benefited from the state’s recently passed eminent domain reform laws, which increase the burden proof for condemnation and create a policy that grant eminent domain cases a higher priority in the state’s appellate courts.

In its ruling, the Court of the Appeals found that the city had acted improperly in its blight designation because it tried to equate the properties’ economic liability, the fact that it could conceivably produce a higher tax revenue, with a social liability, whose definition “focuses upon the health, safety, and welfare of the public.”  Missouri’s eminent domain laws require a property to be both, and the Court found “there was no evidence regarding any public health concerns resulting from the condition of the area.”[8]

The Court of Appeals also sent the case straight to the Missouri Supreme Court—a move that stopped the project temporarily but did not reverse the condemnation process.  

After the decision, property owner Dan Sheehan was confident about his case. “Clayton is taking private property and giving it to a developer for his gain, and that’s not the American way.”[9]

In June, the condemnation process was halted.  The Missouri Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court’s decision, ruling Clayton had not provided enough evidence for the supposed blight—largely because the blight report failed to provide any evidence that the threatened properties constituted a social liability.

The court also criticized Clayton for trying to use the imagined benefit of the redevelopment project as evidence of current blight: “The city’s ultimate goals for the area cannot serve as probative evidence of social liability in light of the lack of evidence concerning the public health, safety, and welfare in the record.”[10]

Clayton’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt at seizing property for the Centene Corporation demonstrates the lengths to which a city will go to abuse its eminent domain power, whether that means stretching the definition of “blight” or trying to thwart a referendum, to increase its tax revenue at the expense of its own citizens’ livelihoods.  Luckily for the citizens of Clayton, there are vigilant property owners ready to fight back—and win.


[1] Timothy B. Lee and Shaida Dezfuli, “Eminent Domain Victim of the Month,” Show Me Institute, June 2006.

[3] Lee and Dezfuli.

[4] Margaret Gillerman, “Petitions oppose eminent domain in Clayton,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 29, 2005.

[5] Ryan Heinz, “Clayton voters send message on eminent domain, Citizen Journal, August 16, 2006.

[6] William C. Lhotka, “Centene is cleared to used condemnation, judge rules Company needs three parcels or its planned world headquarters at Hanley Road and Forsyth Boulevard,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 20, 2007.

[7] Quoted in Margaret Gillerman, “Clayton plaza project is moving forward,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 5, 2007.

[8] Centene Plaza Redevelopment Corporation v. Mint Properties

[9] Quoted in William C. Lhotka and Tim O’Neil, “Eminent domain flashpoint Appellate court slows $210 million Clayton project, sends case to state’s top court,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 25, 2007.

Jane Carpenter, Ozark's Activist Leader

“It’s just a house…Home is wherever you make it.”[1]

That was the reaction of (now former) mayor of Ozark, Mo., Donna McQuay to residents’ objections to the plan to redevelop 47 acres of the city after the local redevelopment authority approved it in June 2006.

Two years earlier, voters in Ozark had approved an ordinance establishing a redevelopment authority thinking that it would help improve truly blighted areas of the city, specifically the dilapidated and crime-ridden Riverview Mobile Home Park. In May 2004, Ozark’s Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority (LCRA) surprisingly declared not only the mobile home park blighted but also the 42-acre neighborhood surrounding it.[2]

During the next two years, the city of Ozark held the threat of eminent domain over its citizens while city officials blamed residents for not being involved for the project—which did not have an official plan until June 2006.[3]

Jane Carpenter was one of the residents who opposed the city’s decision to blight her neighborhood. Carpenter attended all of the public meetings, and when she had the opportunity would simply tell her local officials the most simple, honest and effective message: “I do not want to sell my property.”[4]

Carpenter was not alone in wanting to keep her home, of course, but it took work to organize her fellow residents in the “blighted” neighborhood. Not used to the usual kind of rhetoric—“eminent is a last resort” and “blight is not a bad thing”—from local officials hoping to redevelop using eminent domain, Ozark residents believed their local officials meant what they said.

Carpenter knew better, however. In an effort to educate her neighbors, Carpenter helped organize the River Neighborhood Association and held “Open Porch Meetings” at her home. With a porch full of people, she would tell her neighbors about the latest news about the project, and together they would strategize to oppose the seizure of their beloved homes.

“People figured it out,” said Carpenter. “Once she [Mayor McQuay] was done with this project, she could blight me.”[5]

“All I did and even said was, ‘I want to keep my house.’”

As the election neared, Carpenter considered running against McQuay, if only to remove her from office, but Alderman Don Watt stepped in, campaigning directly against the use of eminent domain to redevelop the neighborhood.

Carpenter and her neighbors had covered the neighborhood with “Stop Eminent Domain Abuse” posters, but had taken them down after Watt entered the race. On the night of the last debate, she put them back up to remind every one of what many considered the key campaign issue.

“I knew nothing could make it any worse for me,” she said, describing her decision to put her signs up once again. “During that debate, [McQuay] said her plan was to clean out that area after she had said earlier that eminent domain had never happened.”

“People started to stand up to her and note her contradiction,” said Carpenter.[6]

In the end, Ozark residents voted in favor of Watt in the April 2007 election.

A month later, the Ozark Board of Aldermen passed an ordinance taking away the LCRA’s ability to use eminent domain for the redevelopment.[7]

Looking back upon the past three years, Carpenter says it was an exhausting process but is glad she never gave up. She also has advice for property owners currently facing the threat of eminent domain.

“No matter how depressed you might be and how bad it’s looking, keep on going,” she said. “Keep the issue alive and don’t give up hope.”[8]

[1] Didi Tang, “Panel accepts plan for Oxark blighted area,” Springfield News-Leader, June 23, 2006

[2] Didi Tang, “Ozark board declares old neighborhood blighted,” Springfield News-Leader, June 8, 2004

[3] Tang, June 23, 2006.

[4] Telephone interview with Jane Carpenter conducted by Chris Grodecki on June 19, 2007

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ozark, Mo., Ordinance No. 07-031 (May 7, 2007).

[8] Telephone interview with Jane Carpenter conducted by Chris Grodecki on June 19, 2007