Instead of Waiting to Be Taken, Businesses Take City to Court

The businesses in the Five Corners TIF district in Des Plaines, Ill., have continued to run successfully over the past three years. But their properties have languished under the city’s blight designation, in part because the city can take their property via eminent domain at any point and has no plans for what to do after it has seized the property.

After nearly three years of being declared “blighted,” a group of four businesses in the Five Corners TIF district have filed suit against the city, rightfully claiming the blight designation is bogus. So far, nothing has stopped local officials’ vague plans for the area, but the businesses have had enough with having their livelihoods put in jeopardy.

One of those businesses is Chromatech Printing, Inc., a printing company started in 1983 by Michael Van Slambrouck and his wife Barbara.

She told the Des Plaines News in June that the businesses were suing to protect property rights, noting the cost that comes with defending that fundamental right: “It’s awful that we have to risk our retirement savings in order to protect our property rights, which we should be guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.”[1]

In the state of Illinois, eminent domain is allowed for economic development only in established Tax Increment Financing districts. In order to establish a TIF district, there needs to be a blight study. The business owners’ suit claims the city did a poor job while they worked quickly to establish the redevelopment area back in 2006. The business owners also argue that the city’s “blight” designation is hurting their properties, slowly creating the blight that city officials claim is already there.

The Van Slambroucks and other property owners in the TIF district have been fighting the city officials since 2005, when city officials first proposed a 96-acre TIF district. The original proposal affected 100 businesses, more than 50 homes and a trailer park with 220 residents.[2] Under Illinois law, a TIF district, once established, can last up to 23 years. That means that it is possible that the businesses in the Five Corners Plan area would be under the threat of eminent domain until 2029.

City officials at first indicated that they planned to replace these properties with an up-scale business district of some sort, but the city has never come out with a specific plan. City officials, however, have mentioned to local media that they would like to see big-box stores replace local businesses.[3] After learning that the city wanted to replace them specifically however, many of the businesses came together quickly to form the Triangle Business Owners Association.

The increased pressure from local residents and business owners forced the city to exempt the trailer park from the redevelopment plan in March 2006. Two months later, a consultant hired by the park district, school districts, and Maine Township found that the city had “misrepresented and possibly overstated” the case for blight in the neighborhood.[4]

As if that were not bad enough, another consultant stated that not only had the city exaggerated its findings but that the blight analysis appeared to be copied and pasted from the blight study done for the southwest suburb of Oak Lawn.[5]

In response to the city’s insistence on proceeding in spite of the shoddy study, citizens gathered enough signatures to get the question on the November 2006 ballot. The result would have only been advisory, but that was enough to force city officials to make some concessions. In an effort to placate voters, the city council removed some businesses and nearly all of the homes from the proposed TIF district the day before the vote. Nevertheless, a majority of voters voted against the TIF plan. [6]

Unfortunately, that didn’t stop city officials either. City officials have since articulated their plans to borrow just $7.5 million to pay for the properties, which, they have made clear, they plan on handing over to private developers. But officials still admit they have no plans for the area—they’ve just “got to do something.”[7]

[1] Pat Krochmal, “TIF businesses sue Des Plaines,” Des Plaines News, June 3, 2008.

[2] Ames Boykin, “Des Plaines plan sparks development concerns,” Chicago Daily Herald, February 2, 2006, at 1; Ames Boykin, “Proposed legislation would add hurdle,” Chicago Daily Herald, May 3, 2006, at 7; “Mobile home park is spared by the city,” Chicago Tribune, March 7, 2006, at METRO 3.

[3] “Bajor Keeping Quiet On TIF Lawsuit,” The Journal & Topics, June 6, 2006.

[4] Ames Boykin, “Five Corners not blighted, consultant says; School districts vote no after report says city ‘misrepresented’ factors in quest for TIF,” Chicago Daily Herald, May 19, 2006, at 1.

[5] Ames Boykin, “Five Corners tempers flare Consultant defens study for tax district,” Chicago Daily Herald, June 27, 2006 at 1.

[6] Ames Boykin, “Development of Five Corners on November ballot,” Chicago Daily Herald, August 22, 2006; Mark Shuman, “Des Plaines protects properties; Homes, some firms off ‘5-corners’ plan,” Chicago Tribune, September 20, 2006.

[7] Ames Boykin, “Why city plans to buy land Des Plaines says it wants to jumpstart Five Corners,” Chicago Daily Herald, October 31, 2007, at 1.

Trampled Rights & Broken Promises

How Nice Homes in Murdock Village, Florida Were Taken for a Failed Redevelopment Project

Before Florida’s landmark eminent domain reform passed in 2006, blight in Florida meant whatever the government wanted it to mean. In no place was this abuse of eminent domain more egregious than in the case of Murdock Village in Charlotte County, Fla. As if it were not bad enough that the county condemned hundreds of properties to hand them over to a developer, the project now has stalled and looks like it will never actually happen.

Charlotte County first started buying land in 2003 as part of a plan to redevelop 1,100 acres of mostly undeveloped land. However, the area also contained at least 77 homes, 16 commercial properties, and two churches.[1]

As properties values rose, the county decided it would be too expensive to negotiate with property owners over market value and decided not just to use eminent domain but also to ask a court to allow them to use “quick-take” condemnation, where officials could condemn hundreds of properties in one fell swoop.[2]

The property owners took the county to court, challenging the condemnations. Citing Kelo, the Second District Court of Appeal of Florida affirmed the county’s condemnation, finding that the properties in question did come under the state’s then-vague definition of blight.[3]

According to one of the property owners’ attorneys, the county was itself responsible for the blight.

Ellen Neil told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune: “It is the government’s policy not to maintain roads where people are not living, and then they say, ‘Gotcha. I took your money for 30 years and now I’m going to take your property because the roads are deteriorated.’”[4]

The court’s decision came a few weeks after Florida’s sweeping eminent domain reform bill was made law. Because the project had been on-going, the reform did not apply to Murdock Village.

Nearly two years after the state appeal court decision that allowed Charlotte County to condemn homes and businesses in order to clean up “blight,” the vacant land now really is blighted, and the county is still trying to sell the land to developers.[5] In the past four years, three developers have made offers to the county and then withdrawn.[6]

In 2007, Kitson & Partners, the latest developer to approach county officials, offered to buy 870 acres of the development to create a downtown area. Their offer shrunk down to 40 acres in February 2008 after the housing market went south. A few weeks later, Kitson rescinded its offer altogether.[7]

According to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the project has put Charlotte County $105 million in debt—a debt that increases $16,710 each day.[8]

As the debt mounts, local officials still remain “hopeful” about the project though. County officials now have to decide whether they will divide up the project area into pieces and develop piecemeal or keep it together and hope against hope that one developer will snatch it all up.[9]

Charlotte County finds itself in a similar situation as did it five years ago. They hoped to attract a developer with a huge project area instead of a few more modest project areas, and they had little problem seizing private land in order to make that happen. Apparently eminent domain was not enough to ensure the attractiveness or the success of their grand designs. Years later, hundreds of property owners have moved on, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent, and Charlotte County officials have nothing to show for it all except an ever-increasing debt.

Luckily for Floridians, eminent domain abuse will no longer be part of future development disasters like Murdock Village, since the 2006 reform law and constitutional amendment took Florida from being one of the worst abusers of eminent domain to being one of the best protectors of property owners in the country.

[1] Dana Berliner, Opening the Floodgates: Eminent Domain Abuse in the Post-Kelo World” (Arlington, Va.: Institute for Justice, 2008) p. 27.

[2] James Manfuso, “Lot acquisition on fast track; Judge rules the county can use eminent domain,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, December 1, 2004 at A1.

[3] Fulmore v. Charlotte County

[4] Devona Walker, “Use of eminent domain upheld; An appeals court sides with Charlotte County in Murdock Village case,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, June 1, 2006 at BCE1.

[5] Kate Spinner, “Developer’s Murdock plan shrinks from 870 to 40 acres,” Sarasota Herald Tribune, February 27, 2008; Kate Spinner, “County to close roads in Murdock Village, Sarasota Herald Tribune, March 7, 2008.

[6] John Haughey, “Murdock Village at a crossroads,”The Charlotte Sun, April 5, 2008.

[7] Neil Hughes, “Kitson nixes Murdock Village offers,” The Charlotte Sun, March 11, 2008.

[8] Spinner, February 27, 2008.

[9] Haughey.

Victories in New Jersey Give Property Owners Hope

By Alex Reynolds, Castle Coalition Intern

Although New Jersey has seen persistent abuse of eminent domain for decades, there is hope that the tide is turning for property owners in the Garden State.

A recent series of court rulings has tightened the standards used to invoke eminent domain and given New Jersey residents much-needed protection against land-hungry municipalities that have taken advantage of the state’s lax redevelopment laws.

The most significant recent victory came from Harrison, New Jersey, where an appeals court ruled that property owners had failed to receive “fair and adequate” notice to legally challenge the city’s blight designation of several properties within a redevelopment zone.[1]

Anthony DeRose, the property owner in the case, did not receive proper notification that his business’s 1997 inclusion into an area “in need of redevelopment” meant that the city could take his property through condemnation.[2]

In 2004, seven years after the redevelopment zone was established, DeRose discovered “redevelopment” actually meant that the city planned to take his 37-yeard-old business, Tony’s Truck Tire Repair, on Middlesex Street to make way for a mixed-use development project.[3] It did not matter that DeRose ran his successful business at the location for a decade nor that he had renovated the property in 2000. DeRose knew the city-imposed “blight” label was false and planned to persevere through the courts until he was vindicated.

Before DeRose’s case, Harrison had adopted a policy whereby residents were given a 45-day period to challenge a “blight” designation, beginning when the city declared an area “in need of redevelopment.”[4] The policy overlooked the fact that exact properties to be taken by eminent domain might not be determined until years after the redevelopment designation—leaving property owners with little or no legal recourse to challenge the town’s findings.

DeRose and his attorney Richard DeAngelis argued that the current notification system “leaves many property owners in the dark,” saying that it is unreasonable to give residents a timetable without telling them “when the clock has begun ticking.”[5]

Calling New Jersey law in the matter “spotty and incomplete,” the unanimous court ruled that the 45-day period was inadequate and that municipalities have certain “constitutionally essential” obligations to property owners.[6] According to the court, municipalities must notify property owners that their property has been designated for redevelopment and that the designation is lawful. They must also inform the owner of the legal time constraints on challenging the designation. Without this notice, property owners cannot be expected to abide by any 45-day period established by the city.[7]

Despite this victory DeRose’s property remains in limbo. The city condemned it in September, and he has continued his business in spite of the condemnation. DeRose will continue to defend his property now that the case has been sent back to the trial courts.[8]

The Harrison decision sets a much-needed standard for municipalities to abide by when proceeding with development projects that implicate eminent domain. Cities must now provide direct notice to owners about the fate of their properties and provide them with due process to legally challenge the city’s findings.

Princeton attorney William Potter, who represented another Harrison property owner involved in the DeRose decision was happy to see the court hand down the ruling.

“This is a very big day for opponents of eminent domain abuse,” said Potter, “This is a highly important case.” [9]

New Jersey public advocate Ronald Chen also praised the decision, saying that now municipalities are obligated to give residents “clear notice that their property is imperiled.”[10]

Along with the powerful standard of notification put forth in the Harrison decision, New Jersey courts have been siding with property owners in other municipalities.

In Belmar, an appellate court ruled that the city’s “blight” designation for the Belmar Strip Mall was insufficient under New Jersey law. Belmar’s designation relied upon such arbitrary findings as parking issues and inadequate size. [11]

This is the second time in the past year that a court found Belmar’s “blight” standards insufficient.

Relying heavily on the landmark victory in Gallenthin v. Paulsboro, the court found that New Jersey law does not permit the seizure of private property for economic development simply because land is not being used in an “optimal manner.”[12]

According to the court, “the definition of ‘blight’ and ‘area in need of redevelopment’ must be construed narrowly and in harmony with the New Jersey Constitution.”[13]

The decision does not rule out the possibility of redevelopment in Belmar, but it gives New Jersey municipalities warning that vague and misleading standards for “blight” are unacceptable when the taking of private property is on the line.

In response to the ruling, Belmar Mayor Kenneth Pringle is now considering redeveloping the area by forming a voluntary consensus among property owners as an alternative to eminent domain.[14]

Similar to the decision in Belmar, a New Jersey court also dismissed Washington Township’s “blight” designation based on its violation of the “under utilization” standard put forth in Gallenthin.[15]

Although these recent victories show signs of hope and give many property owners the power to challenge municipalities’ unfounded blight designations, there are still indications of “business as usual” eminent domain abuse in New Jersey.

In Atlantic City, Pinnacle Entertainment Inc. is hoping for a “blight” designation on successful businesses that stand in the way of its new casino project.

In Linden, the fate of the Linwood Inn is unknown, as the popular family-owned tavern and eatery struggles to fight their status as part of the “New Wood Avenue&rdq
uo; redevelopment.

And in Long Branch, citizens await their day in court to challenge the city’s decision to use eminent domain to make way for luxury condominiums.

These recent court rulings, along with those from last year, have shifted the state away from its previous redevelopment free for all. New Jersey courts have began to recognize blatant eminent domain abuse and may now have put the momentum for reform on the side of property owners as they struggle to keep what is theirs.

[1] DeRose v. Harrison

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Paul Kloepp, “Truck tire, repair shop owner happy for a day in court,” Jersey Journal, February 26, 2008.

[9] Tom Hester and Maura McDermott, “Legal Ruling Seen as Shield Against Property Seizure,” The Star Ledger, February 26, 2008.

[10] “Ruling a Big Win for Property Owners,” Home News Tribune, March 2, 2008.

[11] BMIA, LLC. V. Belmar

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Erik Larsen, “Belmar Redevelopment Dealt A Legal Setback,” Asbury Park Press, February 5, 2008.

[15] Gallenthin v. Paulsboro

Lost in Limbo



An irony of urban redevelopment is that the purported goal of economic development is usually hampered by government’s insistence on retaining the power of eminent domain for a project.  Forest City, a developer infamous for its Atlantic Yards dispute in New York, is involved in just such a situation in Fresno, Calif.  Fresno decided in 2005 that the area south of Chukchansi Park, home of the city’s minor league baseball team, should be “revitalized.”  The next year, the city hired mega-developer Forest City to begin the downtown redevelopment; unfortunately, the very plan designed to revitalize Fresno’s downtown is draining the area of not only its current tax base but hampering other future investments in that area. 

Read the rest at CastleWatch.

Correspondents' Corner

February 14, 2008

When it comes to battling eminent domain on the grassroots level, you the property owner, the resident, the neighbor, are the best expert when it comes to figuring out the tactics best suited to your community. CastleWatch’s “Correspondents’ Corner” features the experiences and expertise of property owners, in their own words. We hope they will be a continuing source of inspiration for those who continue to fight to protect their properties from eminent domain abuse.

How Do You Spell “Em-men-nent”?

By Phil Jakes-Johnson

Syracuse, New York

In April 2002, the Onondaga County Industrial Development Agency voted to use eminent domain to push many tenants out of a mall so that they could build a project on a much larger, glitzier scale, to be named “Destiny USA.” But the business and homeowners took destiny into their own hands: they joined together to form the “Salina 29,” led in part by Phil Jakes-Johnson, and began their activism by attending the Castle Coalition’s national conference in 2005. In January 2007, after almost two years of persistent activism, OCIDA took eminent domain off the table for the plan.

In March of 2005, I learned how to spell “eminent” without any hesitation. That was the month Onondaga County, N.Y., decided my business, along with 26 other businesses and two homes, would be a great place to have a 325-acre research park.

My first informal organizational meeting of property owners revealed the myriad of opinions and personalities affected by this land deal. I thought people would be excited about the new project that said we would be bought out by another private company eager to use our land.

My enthusiasm was not shared throughout the group. Some referred to the deal as a “bargain-basement” buyout. Others were not opposed as long as proper compensation would to be implemented. We knew that eminent domain was on the table, but we were unclear as to how our land was going to be used for public good. We thought that if our buyer was another private company, then eminent domain could not be used.

As the details of the project were revealed, we realized that eminent domain was in fact possible and happening. Our land was being assessed, not for the benefit of public good, but for the benefit of another private company. The situation grew more complex, and it became clear that if we wanted to protect our land we would have to be a conglomerate of 29 and not 29 individuals fighting alone.

In our second meeting we came together to form “The Salina 29.” We decided that legal assistance should be sought because most of us were still unsure about the legal parameters. We met with a law firm familiar with eminent domain issues in New York State. They informed us that we had little hope of winning in a court of law and that if we wanted to prevent the government from using eminent domain for a developer’s private gain, we should appeal to the court of public opinion.

We did this as an effective group by presenting ourselves to the public as a unified entity that stressed the positive aspects of the project. We never were against the use of eminent domain for public benefit. We were against the use of eminent domain in the context in which it was presented to us—that is, taking private land from one owner and giving it to another for private use. By keeping our mission statement for development and jobs, we avoided the “good” and “bad” dichotomy. Our public connection was established through the use of press releases, signs, demonstrations and public discussions. Every time we approached this issue, we did so by stressing the abuse of eminent domain and not merely the use of it. Our stance was never framed as “us” vs. “them,” despite the persistent push from the media for us to do so.

Within our group tensions would run high, with some people wanting to take a more aggressive approach. We managed these differences by having weekly meetings and delegating a hierarchy of officers. Whatever the differences, we were all in agreement that consistency would be the key to our success. We tried to have one spokesperson that would push our one message: “We all want growth and jobs. The Salina 29 just doesn’t want to use eminent domain for private gain in order to achieve this growth.” No matter the question or setting, we always stressed some variation of that theme.

Things didn’t always go smoothly for us, despite our positive approach. But whenever we would experience a setback, whether from the government or from an article, it became imperative for us to remember that no one article or ruling would make or break this multi-faceted case. The same intricacies that made this case daunting helped to ensure that no one person or event would determine the fate of the Salina 29.

In the end, the court’s decision swung in our favor. Early last year, the developer announced that he would move forward without the use of eminent domain. Thank goodness for freedom of expression and the fundamental American belief in property rights.

Raytown Resistance

Raytown, Mo., is a small suburb of Kansas City that has been trying to revitalize its downtown for years. Raytown is just one of a number of small cities trying to draw people back by kicking out the residents they already have. Although the city owns property it can develop to begin revitalization, overly ambitious city officials, despite the withdrawal of two developers, insist on creating a massive redevelopment while the property they already own becomes blighted.

In 2001, the city bought the First Baptist Church and surrounding property after the congregation moved to another location. Residents thought that the town would use the purchase to spur development. The church property remains vacant as city officials, even after the withdrawal of two developers, keep trying to create a massive redevelopment project while letting the church property they already own become blighted.

Pat Casady, owner of C & C Industrial Armature, received a letter from city officials in 2004 that indicated that his 30-year-old business property would be appraised for condemnation—even though officials explicitly assured him that eminent domain would not be considered. The city planned to take every property on the block, including the 60-year-old Fox Drugstore. Since then, Casady, with a handful of other business owners located in downtown Raytown, have been fighting to keep their businesses.

“They want to make money for the town, and I can understand that,” said Casady. “I’m not against revitalization—I love this place, or else I wouldn’t be here—but I won’t have my property stolen from me.”[1]

The city’s first developer withdrew in 2004 after it could not find tenants that would anchor the project.[2] A second developer withdrew in December 2006 after deciding that the project was not worthwhile, underscoring the notion that redevelopment—especially where eminent domain is used—is not a guaranteed success.[3]

Casady says both developers made offers that grossly undervalued his property, and that when he and fellow business owners tried to talk with city officials, the officials were unwilling to listen to their concerns. While dealing with the first developer, Casady admits he was not sure what exactly he was doing, but when a second developer became involved, Casady started researching. That research led him to the Castle Coalition and to the Eminent Domain Abuse Survival Guide, which proved to be indispensable to his fight.

The second time around, Casady brought together his neighboring business owners, telling them that it was important to band together. “I told them, ‘We’ve got to get together so they don’t run us over one at a time,” recollected Casady. “They were going to take advantage of the weakest link and then go after all of us one by one.”

While examining the Missouri Constitution, Casady discovered that certain small cities cannot use eminent domain for economic development. Using that research, he wrote a series of letters to the editor and contacted local news media, announcing his findings. Although most of the coverage was neutral, Casady was able to go on the radio and TV to make his case, raising awareness in the community about the eminent domain threat.

“It was a day to day deal,” said Casady. “I flunked Seventh Grade and hated school, but when this happened, I was going to make sure I knew what was what.”

For Casady and his neighboring business owners, things are still up in the air—Raytown officials are looking for yet another developer. “We don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Casady. “We can’t sell, we can’t make improvements because there would be no point if the city will just kick us out…we’re in limbo.”

Raytown officials have shifted their focus to the city’s other plan, which calls for a Wal-Mart Supercenter along the Missouri 350 corridor. Casady plans on distributing Survival Guides to property owners there to make sure they are not taken advantage of, as the city tried to do with him. For now, however, the possibility of eminent domain still lingers.

[1] All quotes from an interview conducted by Chris Grodecki on February 1, 2008.

[2] Bill Bell, Jr., “Raytown drops site developer; Dial Realty loses exclusive status in downtown area,” The Kansas City Star, November 17, 2004.

[3] Russ Pulley, “Raytown shifts gears downtown,” The Kansas City Star, December 13, 2008.

Correspondents' Corner

By Carla J. Zambelli

Vice President
Save Ardmore Coalition

Eminent Domain for private gain is legal stealing, economic segregation, and more often than not, class warfare. When you receive a notice of a taking, your world turns inside out, not just upside down. At first you feel like you are in the battle completely and utterly alone. But you aren't alone. There are a lot of us out there.

I didn't set out in life to become a grassroots activist on any level, but eminent domain is an issue that, as an American, I found I simply could not ignore. Let me tell you our story in Ardmore, Pa., where eminent domain threatened a block of small businesses in a local historic business district.

Ardmore is in Lower Merion Township, which is situated in Montgomery County, Pa., just minutes outside of Philadelphia. Ardmore is your quintessential old fashioned main street-oriented town. It represents the bygone days of small town America.

One night in February 2004, my fiancé and I headed off to our typical Friday night dinner destination–Hu Nan Restaurant in Ardmore. This was a tradition started by my parents when I was a child. That night we found out that my family tradition for the past 30 years might cease to exist.

When we got to the restaurant and were seated, the proprietors, Dr. E Ni and Betty Foo were unusually subdued, and Betty was sad.

“The township sent me a letter. They want to take my business.” Betty said with tears in her voice.

Betty told us about all of the businesses at risk, including Suburban Office Equipment, which has been in business since 1926, and the local VFW Post next door to Hu Nan.

The township had declared the block “blighted,” and it intended to acquire these properties in a certified historic district for inclusion in a mixed-use development project to be owned by a private party. Eminent domain abuse was coming to Ardmore.

The Foos asked us to get involved, and we went to a meeting on the second floor of their restaurant and met not only the other targeted business owners, but ordinary citizens just like us who cared. We came from all walks of life and occupations. We became the Save Ardmore Coalition, or “SAC”.

One of the first lessons we learned as SAC was that when you are fighting a battle like this, you become an instant pariah. SAC next contacted the Institute for Justice and newly formed Castle Coalition, who gave us a crash course in grassroots activism. We became a 501(c)(4) Non Profit Civic Action Organization. We also started our own website ( to get our message out faster and farther.

We held rallies, protests and community meetings. We wrote letters to the newspapers until we had writer's cramp. We took every opportunity to speak at public meetings. We lobbied government officials on a state and national level.

And we hit roadblocks. Although eminent domain had become a national issue when Susette Kelo took her case to the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Philadelphia area we discovered it was hard to get media attention from anyone other than the local papers. Eminent domain wasn't sexy enough—it was just “a local issue”. We were called NIMBY and castigated publicly by certain local elected officials at public meetings, who referred to us as “a small group of mean spirited individuals.”

But we hung in there. We found support from not only the Institute for Justice, but from folks like Nancy and Dick Saha of Coatesville, Pa., and the late Rosemary Cubas of Philadelphia who were fighting eminent domain as well. We were suddenly part of a very large and supportive family!

When someone told us in a letter if we didn't like how government was run we should “change the face of who governs us,” our resolve as a group was strengthened. We decided to change literally the faces of those who were governing us. We had an upcoming election. We didn't back one candidate in particular but decided they should all adopt our position and take IJ's pledge against the use of eminent domain for private gain.

We were successful. In November 2005, we watched as five new faces against eminent domain were elected to the 14-member Board of Commissioners.

During this whole time before and after the election, we had the good fortune to finally get some national and even international media publicity. We networked further with other eminent domain fighting citizens locally and nationally. We continued our campaign in the local newspapers and on our website. Honestly, our website put us on the map. The Internet was a most valuable tool. Members also gave testimony before both the Pennsylvania Senate and the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. We submitted written testimony to the U.S. Congress and became part of the record on HR 4128.

In February 2006, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner came to town with Congressman Jim Gerlach to discuss eminent domain. In March 2006, the five new commissioners who came to office promising to end the specter of eminent domain did just that: they proposed and passed a resolution to end eminent domain. Our businesses were free.

Today, as a group, we continue to work for the betterment of our community, including being a part of the eminent domain-free redevelopment process, and a local monthly arts crawl called First Friday Main Line, the brainchild of one of our members. We also continue to play it forward and offer support to other groups still fighting eminent domain.

We are living proof that David can prevail against Goliath. So take heart and remember: you are not alone.

NYC Communities Band Together To Fight Eminent Domain

Driving home from the Castle Coalition’s National Conference in June 2007, Brooklyn resident Lumi Michelle Rolley kept thinking about what property owners in New York City could do about the rampant eminent domain abuse in several neighborhoods throughout the metropolis.

One comment from an IJ attorney at the conference stood out in her memory.  Asked by another New Yorker for the prospects of a court victory in New York to stop eminent domain abuse, the attorney, with a case pending in New York, sighed with frustration and said that the best hope for any type of reform would come from citizens coming together and putting pressure on politicians to change the law.

Property owners in three of the four major redevelopment areas in New York had already met and shared their stories with each other at the conference.  Rolley, working from the ties made at the conference, made some phone calls in an effort to organize all of these disparate groups divided by geography but united against the threat of eminent domain abuse.  By the end of June, the group, New Yorkers Against Eminent Domain Abuse, had been established and had held their first rally on the steps of the New York city hall.

The broad coalition of New Yorkers includes 22 different community groups and four city council members.  The anchor groups of the coalition include citizen groups from four major redevelopment areas in New York City: West Harlem, Atlantic Yards, Duffield Street and Willets Point.

The group cites several reasons why the situation in New York needs to be reformed, including increased eminent domain abuse since Kelo, lack of legislative reform and rampant declarations of “bogus” blight.

Rolley said the idea of the group is simple. “If we could ever get to know one another, we could help each other,” she said.[1]

Rolley acknowledged that being effective will take a lot of work, but members will be able to benefit from their collective experience even though the major redevelopment areas are at different crucial points in the process.  Atlantic Yards is currently in the courts, while West Harlem is awaiting decisions of city officials, and in Willets Point, it is early enough in the process that some business owners do not think the city will even follow through on its threat to use eminent domain.

“Getting New Yorkers to coalesce around a single issue is very hard,” said Rolley. “New Yorkers are blasé about eminent domain, and most people don’t identify with those outside of their neighborhood or clique.”

But, she acknowledged, that is exactly why she believes it was important for a group like New Yorkers Against Eminent Domain Abuse to form. Not only will threatened property owners be united, but they will, in turn, gain further support by educating their fellow residents about the abuse of eminent domain. 

One of the main areas Rolley said the coalition will be effective is the media.

“We want to keep eminent domain in the news,” said Rolley. “Property owners have to understand that any place being rezoned is a place ripe for redevelopment.”

But reporters who cover the various situations need some help connecting the dots, too.

“Establishing a pattern is so important,” Rolley said. “For example, West Harlem is exactly where we in Brooklyn were a year ago.”

Through the coalition, Rolley said, Brooklyn residents have been able to attend events in West Harlem and tell reporters that what West Harlem residents are hearing from their local officials is exactly what residents in Atlantic Yards heard a year ago.

Rolley also said the group has some of the long-term goals, which include moving beyond the city to establish ties with citizens across the state to advocate for reform in the New York legislature.

Working on the local level, however, is the most immediate task for the group, Rolley said. 

“We formed because we need to make people understand that this isn’t just a small group of people protesting,” she said. “We’re trying to protect the rights of all New Yorkers.”

[1] All quotes from a telephone interview with Lumi Michelle Rolley conducted by Chris Grodecki on July 30, 2007.

Delaware City Plans to Condemn Properties for Condos

In 1993, Ed Osborne re-opened Osborne’s Auto at a new location on Wilmington’s A Street so he could have a permanent place for his then 10-year-old business.  Fourteen years later, Osborne’s property, as well as his livelihood, is no longer secure due to the threat of eminent domain abuse from the City of Wilmington and its plan to redevelop the industrial neighborhood along the Christina River.

When Osborne bought the property, he thought he was doing the city a favor, providing area residents a consistent and sure place to have their cars maintained. “I rented for five years in one place and five years in another,” said Osborne. “I got tired of being moved around, so I bought this place in an area no one wanted to be in.”[1]

To Osborne, it is absurd that a healthy business like his is now being targeted—for a second time, no less—as part of an effort to “improve” a neighborhood he thought he had already helped improve by attracting other businesses.

In 2005, the Delaware Department of Transportation attempted to take his current property for a road along the townhouses at the Christina Landing development, which is across the street from Osborne’s Auto.  One day, Osborne went over to the developer’s office to get some questions answered.

“I walked in and above the fireplace was an artist’s rendering of the development,” said Osborne. “It looked like condos were planned for my property.”

Six other people took a look, agreed and sent a letter to the Department of Transportation objecting to the fact that the plans called for condos, not a road.  At that point, the Department backed down, but Osborne had not won the war, just the initial battle.

“I knew they were going to come back one way or another, and they did,” said Osborne.

Last month, after tearful pleading from property owners, the City Council voted 11-1 to approve a plan to condemn Osborne’s Auto as well as 61 other properties if the owners do not consent to the city’s negotiating tactics.  City officials justified the move under the state’s Slum Clearance and Redevelopment Act.[2]

For Osborne, though, there is no such thing as negotiation as long as city insists on retaining its most powerful weapon:  eminent domain.  According to Osborne, “negotiating” under threat of condemnation is a sham, and he plans on dealing with city only if they take away the threat of condemnation.  Otherwise, he said, he will see them in court.

“I’m going to court with 11 other businesses,” said Osborne. “If we’re going to negotiate, we’re going to negotiate with the same rights that every one else who sells property has.”

Osborne has already secured some support on the state level.  His story has attracted the attention of two Delaware state legislators, one Republican and one Democrat, who say they will propose legislation once the General Assembly convenes in January 2008.  Between now and then they hope to work with the Institute for Justice and others to craft legislation to protect all Delaware property owners from eminent domain abuse.[3]

In the meantime, however, Wilmington’s plan to have the desired properties by the end of fall 2007 is still in place, and Osborne plans to keep up the fight.

“We’re going to every city council meeting,” said Osborne. “We’re going to stand up for our 30 minutes and tell them, ‘We’re not going away.’”  

[1] All quotes from a telephone interview with Ed Osborne conducted by Chris Grodecki on August 29, 2007.

[2] Adam Taylor, “Wilmington Council votes to take land; properties could be condemned,” The News Journal (Wilmington, Delaware), August 24, 2007. 

[3] Adam Taylor, “Eminent domain changes sought; Legislators’ push is response to Wilmington property plan,” The News Journal (Wilmington, Delaware), August 28, 2007.


Despite the pleas by the menacing alliance of tax-hungry municipalities and land-hungry developers to do nothing, legislators across the country are quickly moving to fix their abysmal eminent domain laws. The problem of eminent domain abuse was highlighted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s dreadful decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which gave governments the green light to take your home or business and give it to a politically connected private developer because that developer might be able to produce more taxes and more jobs off of your land.

In a relatively short period of time, legislators in more than two dozen states and the U.S. Congress have either proposed or promised to propose legislation that would significantly protect property owners from unauthorized government land grabs. Alabama recently passed a reform bill, which was signed by Governor Bob Riley. Given the amount of outrage on the issue, from across the political spectrum, we expect other states to follow suit.

We’ve also seen changes at the local level, where cities and counties have declared that they won’t use eminent domain for private gain. Bowling Green, Kentucky, Patrick County (PDF), Virginia and Porterville, California have all passed reform measures, which shows that change at any level of government can further protect private property rights.

But we have to build on this momentum and continue to pressure the very governments that stand to gain by the Kelo decision. Significant eminent domain reform will only come when you make your legislators understand that their constituents universally disagree with the use of eminent domain for private development. There are well-paid and powerful interests working the halls of legislatures and city halls that are dedicated to defeating even the slightest roll back of government power—we’ve already seen their handiwork in Texas. It’s hard work, but vigilance is necessary to ensure that we can hold on to our homes and small businesses.

To do this, we ask each of you to organize to change the law in your city or county or state. We urge you to join the Castle Coalition, which will help you with the language for a constitutional amendment or statute and even work with your legislators, but now is the time to start organizing your friends and neighbors. Your local government will tell you there’s nothing to worry about, that it would never use eminent domain, or that it’s only as a “last resort.” Don’t believe a word of it. Your only protection is a change in the law (or good state court rulings, which is what the Institute for Justice is working on).

Together, there’s no doubt we’ll make private property safe again. For all Americans.