Turning the Tide

When the abuse of eminent domain is finally stopped, historians may look back on January 11 as the day that turned the tide in favor of American homeowners. Dozens of Castle coalition members and other Ohioans converged on Columbus to rally against eminent domain for private gain and to see Carl and Joy Gamble and Joe Horney get their day before the Ohio Supreme Court. The City of Norwood condemned the Gamble’s home and Joe’s rental home so that a private developer could build a complex of chain stores, condos, and office space. Although lower courts had rubber-stamped the City’s actions, the Gambles and Joe persevered, knowing that they weren’t just fighting for their rights, but for the rights of every person who’s ever been a victim of eminent domain abuse.

IJ Senior Attorney Dana Berliner argued the case – the first to be argued since the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Kelo decision – before the Buckeye State’s highest court. She reminded the Court that the Ohio constitution, like other state constitutions, provides more protection of private property than the U.S. Supreme Court said the federal constitution provides. She also made it clear that, if the Ohio Supreme Court followed Kelo, there would be absolutely no protections for Ohio property owners against eminent domain abuse.

After the argument, the crowd that packed the courtroom gathered in a large meeting room in a nearby hotel to congratulate Dana on a job well done and to thank the Gambles and Joe for the courage they’ve displayed in the midst of enormous adversity. Win or lose – the Court will make its decision in the next few months – they are true American heroes.

Photo by Ben Schneider

A Coastal Town Fights Back

Their homes are modest: charming bungalows and ranch houses, simple porches adorned with flowerpots, solid roofs and sun-baked sidewalks. But that’s just a fraction of the story. Their neighborhood is quaint, a family-oriented community on the coast of the New Jersey shore. Their houses enshrine memories dating as far back as the turn of the century, as meaningful as the birth of children and the passing of relatives. Their 38 properties are predominantly single-family homes, a three-block residential district in the heart of a historic and diverse town.

MTOTSA activists rally in October, 2005.

This quiet neighborhood, antiseptically coined “Beachfront North, Phase II” by the city government, has always been a peaceful haven for the families that live there, but the town’s use of eminent domain for private development has shattered the neighborhood’s peace. The city intends to take homes by eminent domain so that a private developer can bulldoze them to the ground and replace them with luxury condominiums—against the will of the current homeowners. Developers have already razed surrounding districts, destroying hundreds of houses and the livelihoods they represented. They have replaced them with cookie-cutter condominiums selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars, much more than any in the neighborhood can afford.

In an effort to save their neighborhood from the same fate, a determined group of Long Branch homeowners joined together in heartfelt opposition to the use of eminent domain for private commercial development. Named after the three streets in peril—Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace and Seaview Avenue—they call themselves the MTOTSA Alliance. [1]

The Beginning: The Story of One Activist, and a Much Larger Mission

Lori Ann Vendetti, who has frequented Long Branch since the 1960s and whose elderly parents live in the neighborhood, has helped lead much of the charge. When she bought a house in 1995, she was very excited to plan to live across the street from her parents during their retirement. That plan was soon interrupted by discussions of eminent domain, and Lori ended up choosing not to move due to the uncertainty regarding condemnation.

“I go to my parents’ house every weekend,” she said, adding, “We used to come to this home every summer. It’s where I grew up. My memories are there. It’s a brick structure to the developers but it’s a home to me.”[2]

It’s not just any brick structure. When her parents moved down to Long Branch permanently twelve years ago, her family carried the used bricks from their old home in Newark to build part of their new castle. Lori Vendetti describes this 1960’s home as the place where she was planning to spend the rest of her life, the home where she too would retire. “It’s where I would want to die eventually,” she said.

Talks of redevelopment in Long Branch began as early as the mid-1990’s, but city officials told Vendetti and her neighbors that their homes would be incorporated into the plans. The city initially drafted plans for in-fill development, a process that would occur much more gradually, resulting in many of the same economic benefits for the city promised by the developers, and certainly not including involuntary land takings for private commercial development.

Vendetti said that homeowners were misled and that the city had “out and out lied” to them. It was only then that Vendetti and her neighbors realized that their homes were in peril, that under New Jersey law, the city could use eminent domain to condemn and destroy their homes. The city got that authority by labeling the nice homes in the area “blighted.” That’s when the close-knit community began to mobilize.

“A few of us met in one of our neighbor’s yards in June 2003. We picked five core group people and that’s what we started doing,” she said. After weeks of research at the local library and several discussions, the MTOTSA Alliance proceeded to challenge the city’s plan at the next city council meeting.

“The city council actually laughed at us,” she said in disbelief. “We were mortified. We were coming to ask for help and our elected representatives actually laughed at us.”

But the grassroots coalition wasn’t going to just walk away. Since then, the group has not missed a single city council meeting, constantly reminding the elected board every week that their homes are not for sale, that eminent domain for private profit is flat-out wrong, and that replacing one modest property for a wealthier one is unjust.

“The city council hates it. Each of us tell our own stories… that we want to stay, that our homes are not blighted, that our homes are not for sale.”

The MTOTSA Alliance has also taken its campaign to the court of public opinion. A rally in February 2005 in the freezing cold drew upwards of two hundred supporters, and a second rally in October 2005 brought 500 sympathetic supporters to stand beside them. Vendetti, who played a major role in organizing the rallies, said that what began as a battle to save their homes has evolved into a mission for principle.

“Eminent domain for private development is not going away unless we, the public, stop it.” She emphasized that the activist group has confronted obstacle after obstacle, and that they constantly support each other in their difficult fight.

From the outset, city officials and developers tried to intimidate them to give up their homes; after all, it was probably the threat of eminent domain that convinced a number of landowners to sell in surrounding communities. The MTOTSA Alliance was hopeful when the mayor encouraged them to submit their own plan for redevelopment, something the mayor said could be simple and informal. The group submitted a thorough, sincere alternative, and the city council brushed it off and dismissed it. Developers themselves have tried to discredit their efforts to the public, and one developer of this project described them to the New York Times as “opportunists looking for higher prices for their property.”[3]

“How could you be an opportunist when all you want to do is keep your home,” responded Vendetti. She added that this is a fight that pins entirely economic considerations against American values, and that she is pro
ud to champion the cause of individual property rights.

She said that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London was more than a judicial blow to property rights. She simply asked, “When did little neighborhoods of single-family homes become something of the past? Obviously you get more tax money with a condominium than four or five homes, but when did that become more important than protecting homeowners who worked so hard to achieve the American dream?”

A Community in Peril

A quick glance at the other residents of the neighborhood who are slated to suffer the consequences of eminent domain proves that this is not about dollars and cents, as some developers and city officials contend. These are hardworking Americans, many who built or bought their Long Branch homes in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s as summer residences, and have since moved into them permanently. This is certainly not a battle for better compensation; it is a fight by a group of homeowners who are battling to keep what is rightfully theirs.

Anna DeFaria has lived in her oceanfront home for 45 years. She has raised all four of her children there, and the thought of relocating terrifies her. She told the local newspaper, the Atlanticville: “I am 80 years old now and a widow. Where do you go if they take your home away?” She added, “I feel safe and secure here. I thought I would stay here until I died.”[4]

DeFaria is not the only one. Longtime neighbor Rose LaRosa inherited her childhood home from her parents in 1983. She says her home stands as a tribute to her brother, a heroic American soldier who visited Long Branch while on leave from his World War II service; his dream, she shared with a newspaper reporter, was to buy a home in this coastal town when the war ended. A few months later, he died in a plane crash, and LaRosa says her father immediately bought the house in his memory. Since then, the home has stayed in the family for generations. She said, “My kids are brokenhearted. They grew up here. My son was born on that bed. My whole life is thinking about it. All my life is here.”[5]

Al Viviano’s story is not much different. He too is a longtime resident of Long Branch. He has been coming to this neighborhood since 1931, and he moved into his home permanently 25 years ago. Now in his nineties, he is a retired blacksmith who put in a life of hard work to be where he is now.[6]

Fighting Tooth and Nail for their Homes

The stories of Lori Vendetti, Anna DeFaria, Rose LaRosa and Al Viviano are just the tip of the iceberg for this neighborhood. In a matter of months, greedy developers muscled their way into the close-knit ethnic community and have already begun turning the coastal district into a series of luxury condominium complexes. Government officials have already initiated eminent domain proceedings, and a legal battle is underway.

For these Long Branch citizens, the condemnation proceedings they are currently facing are as much a source of heartbreak as they are a source of renewed motivation. They say they intend to fight tooth and nail to keep their homes, that they will continue to appeal to public opinion, that they will continue to try to reason with elected officials (they have already convinced one city council member) and that they will challenge their evictions in court on the grounds that eminent domain for private commercial development is a rights violation.

The MTOTSA Alliance has networked nationally for support. They attended the Castle Coalition’s Washington, D.C., conference, they spend hours each day on the telephone and on the Internet corresponding with the media and soliciting support, and they continue to pressure New Jersey state and local legislators to first pass a moratorium on eminent domain for private commercial development and eventually an outright legislative prohibition.

Vendetti is resolute in her convictions and said, “There’s no way we’re going to stop.”


[1] See Ronald Smothers, “In Long Branch, No Olive Branches,” New York Times, 16 Oct. 2005; Christine Varno, “Eminent Domain Letters Evoke Anger, Distress,” Atlanticville, 13 Oct. 2005.

[2] Note: All quotations from Lori Vendetti from a Personal Interview with Justin Gelfand, Oct. 17 2005.

[3] Ronald Smothers, “In Long Branch, No Olive Branches,” New York Times, 16 Oct. 2005.

[4] Christine Varno, “Eminent Domain Letters Evoke Anger, Distress,” Atlanticville, 13 Oct. 2005.

[5] Carol Gorga Williams, “Homeowners: Don’t Force Us Out for New Condos,” Coastal Monmouth Bureau (undated).

[6] Bob Braun, “Shore Neighborhood Finds Hope,” New Jersey Star Ledger, 6 Oct. 2004.

New Recruits

Home and small business owners gathered this week in Phoenix for the Castle Coalition’s second-ever regional conference. The first, held in Newark, N.J., in December 2005, brought together activists from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. As part of the “Hands Off My Home” campaign, a $3-million initiative launched by the Institute for Justice in response to Kelo, the Castle Coalition has decided to take its grassroots training workshop on the road—arming conference participants with the tools and knowledge to defeat land-grabs by tax-hungry governments and land-hungry developers.

“The frontlines against eminent domain abuse are growing in numbers and force,” said Castle Coalition Coordinator Steven Anderson, who has crisscrossed the nation during the past year spearheading the largest political effort to protect homes and small businesses from eminent domain for economic development.

The intensive, one-day conference, a microcosm of the Castle Coalition’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., focuses on providing activists with the most effective strategies to stop eminent domain abuse. Topics in Arizona and Newark included the ins-and-outs of building a grassroots coalition, the importance of arguing your fight in the court of public opinion, tips and pointers on preparing for legal action, and energized brainstorming sessions on taking the fight beyond the particular communities involved. The regional nature of the workshops allowed for the unique opportunity to strategize reform at the state level.

“In the wake of Kelo, it is imperative that we take the overwhelming public opposition to the Court’s decision and channel it toward productive citizen activism,” said IJ Senior Attorney Scott Bullock, who argued Kelo before the U.S. Supreme Court and spoke at the Newark conference. “The regional conference held in New Jersey—one of the biggest abusers of eminent domain in the nation—was a crucial step in motivating and training people to stop takings for private gain.”

Denise Hoagland, an activist from Long Branch, N.J., who has led a comprehensive grassroots campaign to save her beloved home from the government’s wrecking ball, shared her experiences with the other workshop participants. Vibrant energy spread throughout the room, as activists exchanged ideas and strategies throughout the day to protect their property.

Randy Bailey, who staged an effective political and legal battle to save his brake service shop from being taken by the City of Mesa, Ariz., and handed over to a privately owned Ace hardware store, shed similar insight at the Arizona conference.

Among others, participants in Newark included Patti Hagan and Candace Carponter of “Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn,” a community organization fighting developer Bruce Ratner’s efforts to condemn and demolish a historic New York neighborhood for a stadium and a private mixed-use development; Mary Cortes of the Cramer Hill Residents Association, who is challenging a redevelopment plan in her neighborhood that threatens 1,200 homes and businesses with eminent domain; Debra and Victor Lewis of Bloomfield, N.J., whose charming and thriving bridal shop is slated for condemnation; Rosemary Cubas of the Community Leadership Institute in Philadelphia, where the mayor’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative has designated more than 5,000 properties subject to eminent domain; and a number of other committed activists.

Participants in Arizona included Judy Peters, Susan Wheeler—who helped defeat Scottsdale’s bogus blight designations—and Debbie Richards and Erick Baer, who are currently fighting eminent domain abuse in Queen Creek and Phoenix, respectively.

These conferences are the first in a series of regional conferences that will take place in hotspots across the nation. Over the next few months, the Castle Coalition plans to hold similar training workshops in Washington, Florida, Missouri, California and Ohio.

“The nation is energized to stop eminent domain abuse,” said Anderson. “Our activists are carrying the torch on a daily basis. They are committed and ready to protect private property for all Americans. By working together, it is a battle we will win.”

Is Negotiation the New Trump Card?

It appears Donald Trump has changed things up in the Board Room. Eight years after unleashing his apprentices at the New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority to seize three properties by eminent domain for his privately owned limousine staging area and parking lot, he’s back at the negotiating table—exactly where he should have been all along. Only this time, he’s doing the right thing.

In 1997, looking to expand Atlantic City’s Trump Plaza, The Donald attempted to take the home of an elderly widow, a mom-and-pop Italian restaurant and a cash-for-gold store, all by eminent domain. City officials even went as far as telling restaurant owner Clare Sabatini that she would be handcuffed and taken out of her establishment if she refused to sell her property.

“This is America! How can they put me out of business? How could they just take my deed from me?” asked Vincent Sabatini, remembering this battle he fought just to keep what was already rightfully his own.[1]  

With the help of the Institute for Justice, the Sabatinis joined the other property owners in launching a challenge against seemingly insurmountable odds: ordinary citizens taking on a billionaire teaming up with Atlantic City.

   
 

“We should offer a reasonable price for those properties. But it’s their property. They own it and have a right to say no.”

—James B. Perry, President of Trump Entertainment

   

That’s exactly the battle they fought and won. Garnering widespread support in the court of public opinion, the property owners ultimately triumphed in their legal opposition to eminent domain for private development. In 1998, a Superior Court judge dismissed the condemnation actions, saying that Trump would be the primary beneficiary of the property taking, not the public. Put simply, Trump had two options: negotiate a voluntary sale without the threat of eminent domain or walk away from that particular plot of land.

In November 2005, eight years later, with the tide of eminent domain changing nationwide, Donald Trump once again sought the three properties for an undisclosed development plan. Trump Entertainment emerged from its Chapter 11 bankruptcy and announced its intention to purchase land for its plans to modernize its three casinos. This time, he went about it the legal way—through voluntary negotiation, not government force.

Having recently reached a deal with the Sabatinis, who are now ready to retire, Trump purchased their Italian restaurant for an unnamed price. Clare Sabatini, 73, said, “The time is right. It’s right for us, and it’s right for Mr. Trump. We’re happy and they’re happy.” Trump is currently in the process of negotiating with the two remaining landowners.[2]

In the wake of Kelo v. City of New London, developers nationwide have attempted to muscle their way into neighborhoods for their private commercial projects. Much like Atlantic City attempted in the late 1990s, city officials throughout America attempt to use eminent domain for private use, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court opened the floodgates to this type of abuse in its June 2005 ruling. That’s why the Castle Coalition is working every day to reform the laws governing eminent domain at all levels of government.

For the time being, it seems that Trump has learned his lesson—a message that all developers would benefit from following.

James B. Perry, President of Trump Entertainment, said it best: “We should offer a reasonable price for those properties. But it’s their property. They own it and have a right to say no.”[3]

The Castle Coalition could not agree more.


[1] John Curran, “Restaurant owners to sell to trump,” Associated Press, Nov. 26, 2005.

[2] Ibid; “Doing it right,” The Press of Atlantic City, Nov. 26, 2005, at A12.

[3] Ibid.

Is Development Really the Goal?

Vineland Construction Company has plans for a waterfront development on 140 acres it owns in Pennsauken, N.J.[1] Dr. Prabhu Dhalla in Riverside, Calif., is in the process of turning an abandoned thrift shop he recently purchased into a medical building, having already sunk $1 million into construction.[2] Carol Segal is planning to build townhouses on a vacant strip of land he recently purchased in Union Township, N.J., property he bought for that precise purpose.[3]

So it may strike you as odd to learn that these municipalities are moving to condemn each of these properties—all for the alleged purpose of economic development.

In what is an increasingly common trend across the nation, government officials are using eminent domain to acquire private property so that they can then hand land over to developers of their choosing, ignoring the fact that some current owners have the intent, the ability and, often, even the plans to redevelop the land themselves.

In Pennsauken, for example, Cherokee Investment Partners of North Carolina—a competitor of Vineland Construction Company—hopes to move forward with a $1 billion mixed-use development along Pennsauken’s waterfront. Cherokee’s 600-acre plan relies on 140-acres, land already rightfully owned by Vineland. The catch, says Vineland’s attorney Lloyd Levenson, is that the Township has moved “to take property and give it to someone else to do the same redevelopment that we are capable and willing to do.”[4]

The situation in Riverside isn’t much different. In July 2005, the City Council brought in Thrifty Oil Company to build a downtown, four-story medical building with restaurants and retail establishments. The only problem is that neither the City nor Thrifty owns the land for the proposed commercial project; the two entities do not even have a development pact. Meanwhile, Dr. Dhalla, an orthopedic surgeon, owns the land on which the City intends to build, and he has already started construction on an office building of his own. In fact, City Councilman Dom Betro, who represents downtown Riverside, told the Riverside newspaper that the “problem” is that Dhalla only recently began to “get religion” and decided to redevelop his land.[5]

And in Union Township, developer Carol Segal purchased vacant land for the sole purpose of building a townhouse development and now the Township is attempting to seize his land by eminent domain to hand it over to a developer of its choice—who plans on doing the exact same thing with the property that he does.

Ironically, if the government officials in these situations actually sought economic development, they would not intervene when economic development is exactly what is taking place. After all, Vineland promised Pennsauken the same development it is seeking, Dr. Dhalla is conveniently already building an office building where the City wants just that, and Segal plans on building the same townhouses the city hopes its own developer will produce.

Similar situations are occurring nationwide. In June 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the floodgates to eminent domain abuse in Kelo v. City of New London, signaling to officials and developers throughout the nation that they could use eminent domain for the mere possibility of increasing local tax revenue. In response to public outcry against the now infamous decision, defenders of Kelo—typically those who stand to gain from eminent domain abuse—adamantly deny that the government is now engaging in real estate development. However, when officials take land from one developer and give it to another, local governments are doing just that, making business decisions that are best left to the private sector.

The Castle Coalition emphatically opposes government at any level taking land from one person and giving it to another—regardless of whether economic development in that particular instance will be achieved. After all, as the overwhelming evidence indicates, private economic development is undoubtedly successful without any government intervention whatsoever, and there are a number of situations, such as Scottsdale, Ariz., in which government interference actually inhibited billions of dollars of private investment. Situations such as these emphasize just how far city officials teamed up with greedy developers are willing to go.

Too far.


[1] Jill P. Capuzzo, “Decision in Pennsauken case,” New York Times, December 18, 2005, at 14NJ.

[2] Dan Bernstein, “Cheek to cheek,” Press Enterprise (Riverside, CA.), December 20, 2005, at B1.

[3] Sean Hannity, Alan Colmes, “New Jersey Town threatens to take land from owner for townhouses,” Fox News Network: Hannity and Colmes, November 4, 2005.

[4] Capuzzo.

[5] Bernstein.

The Shadow of Condemnation Hangs Over Historic Pennsylvania

History is at stake in Ardmore, a charming town founded in 1686 in the heart of a Philadelphia suburb. Lancaster Avenue, originally a horse-and-foot trail, is now home to an eclectic mix of locally owned and operated retail stores and restaurants. It is a stunningly diverse community, and its residents enjoy a high quality of life and take pleasure in the distinctive beauty of Lower Merion Township.

But then, the Township brought eminent domain into the picture. In the hope of replacing a long-standing block of profitable family businesses with chain stores, chic apartments and a 600-car garage, Lower Merion Township intends to condemn the businesses that give Ardmore its unique character. If passed, the plan calls for the demolition of 10 properties, all designated Class I historic buildings by the Township itself.[1]

The Township is poised to bulldoze family-owned businesses that have as much history as the buildings themselves. Suburban Office Equipment, established in 1926, is a third-generation outfit that has survived the Great Depression, several wars and the economic booms and busts of the 20th Century. Hu-Nan Restaurant is a popular eatery, owned by a Chinese immigrant who came to the United States as a graduate student in 1963, who chased and eventually achieved the American Dream. A hall that houses VFW and American Legion posts stands as a second home to heroic soldiers who courageously defended the rights of all Americans.

The Save Ardmore Coalition, a non-profit organization founded by a group of local citizens, stands in staunch opposition to the township’s proposed eminent domain condemnations—and the very idea that their stores and restaurants can be taken by the government and given to a private commercial developer.

‘I Don’t Know What to Do’: One Business Owner and the Launch of a Coalition

Activists in Ardmore rally against eminent domain abuse.

Scott Mahan isn’t an activist by choice; He’s an activist by necessity—a hardworking man who has fought tooth and nail to keep his family’s Suburban Office Equipment store in its location since 1926. His grandfather started Suburban and it has stayed in his family since then—now run by him, his mother and his brother.[2]

“The store is a part of me and it’s been a part of my family for generations,” he said.

When Scott received a letter in February 2004 informing him that Lower Merion Township had targeted his property and those of his neighbors for eminent domain acquisitions, he was devastated and uncertain about how to proceed.

“I can remember sitting there in my office one night thinking, ‘I don’t know what to do. How can a bunch of small business people and residents take on one of the most powerful townships in Pennsylvania,’” he said.

The answer: joining together. Scott and his community of fellow business owners immediately set out to gather as much information on the proposed development project as possible, and they immediately familiarized themselves with the state and municipal laws governing eminent domain.

“We consulted the Castle Coalition website and we hired a lawyer,” Mahan said. Looking forward, he said, “Practically everyone in town shops at our stores and we all wanted to keep it that way.”

This was the beginning of the Save Ardmore Coalition, a grassroots coalition that has since grown to more than 1,000 members—all of whom share a commitment to protecting the fundamental right of all Americans to keep their homes and small businesses.

In September 2004, the Township hired an independent consulting firm to study Ardmore and assess the extent to which economic redevelopment really required condemning their properties, as local officials contended. The Urban Land Institute, an outside organization that specializes in land use and has no financial connection to the business owners or the Township, conducted a comprehensive study of the downtown business district slated for demolition, and strongly urged against the plans proposed by the Planning Commission. Instead, the Institute submitted a number of alternative approaches to the Township, all of which protect property rights and promise the same benefits the municipality sought without condemning the Ardmore properties.[3]

“We kept coming up with alternative plans, but the Township kept ignoring us,” Mahan said.

In December 2004, the Lower Merion Board of Commissioners overwhelmingly approved the most destructive redevelopment option of all the plans submitted for its consideration. The proposal submitted by Hillier Architects called for the demolition of Ardmore’s entire historic district—even though Hillier simultaneously concluded that all of the buildings were in restorable condition.[4]

Scott Mahan and the Save Ardmore Coalition continued fighting, attending all civic meetings, speaking against the proposal and especially against the abuse of eminent domain, and pursuing practically every grassroots avenue available.

“We’d march to the meetings, carrying signs and making statements. We’d have 300 people on our side, and 100 of them spoke out against the Hillier plan,” he said. “We just kept gaining momentum and the SAC kept growing and growing.”

Blighted?

To find out more about the Save Ardmore Coalition, check out www.saveardmorecoalition.org.

In Lower Merion Township, an area has to be considered “blighted” in order to condemn properties for private development—and that’s exactly the path the Township chose from the outset.

Scott Mahan was surprised that the city had declared his property and the rest of Ardmore’s historic district “blighted.” He said, “I was shocked because it’s not blighted. It’s a way for them to grab the property from the people that own it to give it to somebody else. That offends me.”

Even amidst this frustration—and the threat that their buildings and business would be taken away from them—Mahan and the Save Ardmore Coalition painted and cleaned up the buildings that are slated for
demolition. By ripping down plywood paneling and improving the town’s aesthetics, the Coalition hoped to work with local officials to preserve their businesses while simultaneously beautifying Ardmore.[5]

The members of the Save Ardmore Coalition want a better Ardmore, but not at the expense of the history and character that makes the town unique—and not when their businesses are taken from under them through public force.

Hillier Architects independently concluded that none of the ten historic structures slated for demolition are beyond repair, and the Urban Land Institute urged the Township to adopt its own redevelopment plan for the district that did not involve the use of eminent domain.[6] The Economist magazine even went so far as declaring, “A brief walkabout reveals that it is no more blighted than the potato you ate for lunch.”[7]

The Democratic Approach

The Save Ardmore Coalition has coordinated a powerful campaign against eminent domain abuse and has vocally opposed the government’s condemnation plans every step of the way.

It has also taken the fight for property rights much further. SAC members attended the Castle Coalition’s Washington, D.C. conference and Mahan shared his story at the Institute for Justice’s unveiling of its “Hands Off My Home” campaign at the National Press Club.

“The conference helped us a lot because we met other people going through the same thing. You know you’re not alone; you learn from each other,” Mahan said.

The Coalition filed a lawsuit challenging the condemnations on the grounds that the use of eminent domain for private commercial development violates Pennsylvania’s constitutional protections. A judge recently dismissed the legal action as premature, since the final votes for condemnation have not yet taken place.

A legal challenge was only one path through which the Save Ardmore Coalition has fought against the condemnations of their properties. Over the past year, Mahan has testified on behalf of the Save Ardmore Coalition before the Pennsylvania legislature in support of a measure that would significantly restrict the state’s use of eminent domain and he has played a significant role in Lower Merion’s local elections for township ward commissioners.

He said, “Eventually, elected officials are going to have to listen. And, if they don’t, get better people in office.”

That’s exactly the approach the Coalition pursued—and with critical success. Ardmore activists campaigned against candidates and incumbents that supported eminent domain. Of the seven candidate-elects, four signed pledges not to use eminent domain for private commercial development and two have previously voted against the measure—meaning, for now, it appears the new commissions may not choose to pursue condemnation.

The Save Ardmore Coalition stands as a model for the many homeowners and business people across America who face similar struggles. Mahan emphasizes the importance of other grassroots coalitions mounting effective attacks on the widespread and frequent uses of eminent domain for private development throughout the nation.

Mahan offered advice to other people going through similar situations: “You have to stay together, make a commitment together that you’re going to fight the abuse, and get as many neighbors on your side as you can.”

As for his own business, Scott says the Township has effectively put Suburban Office Equipment into a holding pattern.

“We spend a lot of energy fighting to keep the business, effort that could be channeled to build it,” he said.

For Scott Mahan and the many other property owners whose businesses and livelihoods have been imperiled by Lower Merion Township’s proposed redevelopment plan, the threat of condemnation is just as bad as the use. The mere possibility that the Township may take their properties has understandably made them reluctant to make major improvements. Their campaign has evolved into a much larger mission

“It’s not just about my business and Susette Kelo’s house,” Mahan said. “It’s about the country that our children will live in. It’s about being at an important point in history. It’s about fighting what ultimately amounts to abuse.”

And it’s about securing the constitutional rights of all Americans—one step at a time.


[1] See http://www.SaveArdmoreCoalition.org/about; Note: Chapter 88 of the Lower Merion Township Code designates Class I historic buildings.

[2] Scott Mahan, Personal Interview with Justin Gelfand, Nov. 14, 2005. Note: This is the source of all Scott Mahan quotations contained herein.

[3] Urban Land Institute, “An Advisory Services Panel Report: Ardmore, Pennsylvania,” Revitalization of Historic Ardmore: Finding the Tipping Point, Sept. 24, 2004.

[5] Richard Ilgenfritz, “Coalition Sues to Block Redevelopment,” Main Line Times, Apr. 21, 2005.

[6] Urban Land Institute, “An Advisory Services Panel Report: Ardmore, Pennsylvania,” Revitalization of Historic Ardmore: Finding the Tipping Point, Sept. 24, 2004.

[7] “Hands off our homes,” The Economist, Aug. 18, 2005.

Stopping the Vote

Defenders of eminent domain for economic development—who steadfastly maintain that the political process alone is sufficient to stop abusive condemnations—have recently gone to extreme measures to keep voters out of these decisions entirely.

Concerned citizens in Clayton, Mo., who organized as the aptly named Committee to Stop Abuse of Eminent Domain, circulated petitions that would force a referendum on the City’s highly contentious proposed use of eminent domain. Downtown business owners along the 7700 block of Forsyth Boulevard in the St. Louis suburb more than met the minimum number of signatures necessary to bring this issue to the ballot—exceeding the quota four times over. At issue is the Centene Plaza development project, a $190 million private commercial development that is slated to take beautiful homes and thriving small businesses by eminent domain and replace them with a 16-story headquarters building for the Centene Corp. and other retail establishments.[1]

But Clayton City officials have decided to operate under a technical provision in the City Charter that prohibits a referendum in situations such as this one where a bill is introduced and passed unanimously at the same meeting. Not surprisingly, that’s exactly what the Clayton City Council did—and in doing so, it stopped the voters from becoming the ultimate democratic check, usurping authority entirely to itself.[2]

Michael F. Neidorff, chairman and CEO of Centene, said, “It is now time for everyone to decide if they want jobs or just want to talk about it.”[3] Yet the City Council is doing everything within its power to stop everyone from having the opportunity to make that decision.

Citizens across Missouri are energized to bring statewide eminent domain reform straight to the voters. This month, the Castle Coalition has crisscrossed the state, working with property owners on grassroots activism, testifying before a number of legislative bodies, and urging the genuine reform of laws governing eminent domain to better protect property rights.

However, Peter Yelorda, chairman of the State’s Tax Increment Financing Commission (a governmental entity that has a hand in eminent domain abuse), emphasized just how terrified he is of the prospect of a statewide referendum. He said, “If it goes to the public, we’re in trouble.”[4]

This mentality is not limited to Missouri. In January 2006, the Pembroke Pines, Fl., Charter Review Board—a municipal body charged with assessing the City Charter—unanimously voted to ask City commissioners to put a critical question on the ballot: whether the City should be prohibited from seizing private houses so developers can tear them down and build new projects in their place.[5]

Afraid to give citizens the chance to make this important decision, City Commissioners voted 3-2 against the request.[6] It turns out the Charter Board wanted the question on the March ballot to prevent City officials from condemning private property for economic development under a $100-million bond issue that voters approved in March 2005 designating millions of dollars for economic redevelopment.

Similarly, City officials in Lorain, Ohio, voted 9-2 in November 2005 to designate 65 acres as an urban renewal area—giving them the power to ultimately take those properties by eminent domain. An emergency clause in the ordinance prohibits residents from petitioning for a referendum on the decision, according to Councilwoman Kathy Tavenner, who cast one of the two votes against the proposal.[7] She said, “This is not a blighted area…. What if someone wants to do a referendum on the blight study? They can’t do that now.”[8]

As Institute for Justice attorney Dana Berliner recently argued before the Ohio Supreme Court in City of Norwood v. Horney, courts and lawmakers alike have a responsibility to respect constitutional limitations on the power of eminent domain. Defenders of eminent domain all too often draw a false choice between protecting individual rights and meeting community redevelopment objectives. The Castle Coalition has shown time and time again that Americans can have both, and the Castle Coalition urges city officials to bring these issues straight to the voters.

Throughout the United States, concerned citizens are working long hours to organize voter initiatives. As practically every poll taken since the U.S. Supreme Court’s now infamous decision in Kelo v. City of New London indicates, Americans overwhelmingly oppose eminent domain for private gain, and citizens certainly understand what’s at stake.

Meanwhile, government officials nationwide are abusing eminent domain, neglecting entirely the rights of home and business owners to keep what’s already rightfully theirs. The Castle Coalition urges legislators at all levels of government to respect private property rights, and never to use eminent domain for private development. In Clayton and elsewhere, local government officials are usurping political power to such an extent that citizens can no longer turn to City Hall.

After all, if the political process really is a sufficient check on eminent domain abuse, why are city officials in Missouri, Florida, Ohio—and nationwide—so afraid to let the voters decide?

The answer is simple: Americans oppose eminent domain abuse now more than ever, and they’d surely vote accordingly.


[1] Margaret Gillerman, “Despite petitions, Clayton referendum still in doubt,” Knight-Ridder Tribune Business News, January 6, 2006.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Kevin Collison, “Eminent domain’s defenders go to work,” The Kansas City Star, December 20, 2005.

[5] Joe Kollin, “Eminent domain vote falters; 3 on commission oppose taking issue to public,” Sun-Sentinel, Jan. 8, 2006 at 1.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Shawn Foucher, “Retail project gets green light,” The Chronicle-Telegram, Dec. 16, 2005.

[8] Shawn Foucher, “Lorain votes on urban renewal,” The Chronicle-Telegram, Nov. 2005 (online edition).

A Bittersweet End

The city of Sunset Hills, Mo., describes itself as “one of the most desirable communities in which to live and work in the St. Louis area.”[1] Never mind the fact that City officials teamed up with private developer Jonathan Browne of Novus Development Company to bulldoze Sunset Manor—destroying an entire neighborhood that was the most ethnically diverse and most affordable part of town.

The latest development in the story began in 2002 (after the City dropped a development proposal by the Sansone Group), when Novus quietly approached the City with plans to build a $165-million “Lifestyle” shopping center, offices and a hotel. City officials responded by pledging $62 million in Tax Increment Financing, and handing the private developer its governmental power of eminent domain to condemn and demolish more than 250 homes. Novus representatives visited residents who had no interest in selling their homes and no plans to move, threatening them with eminent domain and giving them five days to accept offers.[2]

Uprooted by a cloud of condemnation hanging over their neighborhood, hundreds of families reluctantly sold their homes under the threat of eminent domain and proceeded to purchase new homes. Many people who had lived in Sunset Manor since the 1940s expressly commented on the fact that their sales were made involuntarily—and that their decisions to sell their homes did not reflect support for the project.

Margaret Henneken, a resident of the community for half a century, said, “I’m 86 years old and I don’t want to move.”[3] She was one of many who sold solely and entirely because Novus had the power to seize her property by eminent domain, and to do so for a shopping center.[4]

Kathy Tripp, another longtime resident and Castle Coalition activist, said, “People were scared enough to sign the contract, but they did not sell their houses because they wanted to. It’s a harsh and sad analogy, but it was akin to having a policeman coming to the scene of a crime and telling a victim, ‘you did it, you must have wanted to do it.’”[5]

Tripp and other residents courageously chose to fight the City’s eminent domain abuse, and they formed a citizen’s group called the Stop the Sunset Hills Land Grab. Expanding on advice learned from the Castle Coalition’s Survival Guide, activists went door-to-door spreading awareness of the project and circulating petitions. In April 2005, the group submitted a petition opposing eminent domain for private gain with signatures representing 1,000 households. The next month, citizens came back with two more petitions, calling for a referendum on the project—a powerful grassroots tool recommended by the Castle Coalition. Unfortunately, government officials denied the proposed referendum, hypocritically refusing to let citizens vote on a project that the government claimed a majority of residents supported.

In June 2005, opponents of the project also filed two lawsuits against the City seeking to stop the takings. Because some homeowners had sold their homes and immediately purchased new homes, this pitted victims of eminent domain abuse against one another. Some people who had already purchased new homes before technically selling their old ones blamed the hardworking folks who simply wanted to keep what they rightfully owned, for “holding up” the project.

With this variable added to the equation, what started as a difficult fight had escalated into an even more intricate challenge—but activists remained strong with their convictions and commitment to defend the beloved structures of brick and mortar they simply wanted to continue calling home.

“I defended my property,” said Tripp. “Just as they had a right to sign a contract, I had a right not to.”[6]

Remarkably, the tides changed in September 2005. The bank financing the acquisition of more than 200 homes withdrew its funding, and Novus proceeded to ask homeowners for extension after extension as the company unsuccessfully attempted to save its abusive project. City officials soon discovered—as activists suggested all along—that Novus did not have the money to pay for homes it had already purchased under the threat of condemnation.

In February 2006, the City finally scrapped its plans, leaving hundreds of hardworking families in limbo. Some residents continue their struggles to pay mortgages on two houses at once, and the vast majority of the community remains stuck in gutted homes that were perfectly fine when discussions of redevelopment began.

In fact, the bogus blight study that the City used to abuse eminent domain in the first place has become a self-fulfilling prophecy—and that’s where the worst tragedy lies.

Homeowners like Kelly Luitjens, who heeded the City’s advice and scrapped all raw materials from her house while simultaneously purchasing another home, said, “We didn’t ask for this, none of this…. We were happy in our house. Now we work like dogs to come home to a place that isn’t worth living in.”[7]

Or, as Tripp said, “Everyone buys their home to live in them and they don’t want to move. That’s why they buy homes. The biggest purchase of your whole life is not even sacred anymore and that’s a problem.”

Sunset Manor—and what it has become due to eminent domain abuse—should serve as a salient reminder that reform of eminent domain laws in Missouri and across the country are long overdue. The Castle Coalition continues to work with home and business owners nationwide who are facing condemnation, and with legislators who are carrying the torch to once again protect the fundamental right to keep what one already owns.

At a February 2006 City Council meeting, Alderman Robert Brockhaus (3rd Ward)—who supported the project initially—said that City officials had no way of knowing that Sunset Manor would end up the way it has.[8]

That could not be further from the truth. Sunset Manor did not become a tragedy. The use of eminent domain for private development sparked the fire, and it has continued to rage uncontrollably ever since.

Homeowners and Castle Coalition activists in Sunset Hills can rest assured that the Castle Coalition will continue to stand behind them and beside them as they carry on their noble quest to protect and improve their beloved neighborhood. The City has pledged to create a task force of residents, and it is only right to include people who opposed the development from the start. They’ve carried the torch since the beginning—and they’re not planning on stopping now.

“There are so many people who want to stay who are committed that aren’t going anywhere. We’re staying,” activist Phillis Hardy said. “Who’s to say they’re not going to bring in another developer? They’re certainly leaving the door open for that. Our focus is to keep our homes and get this neigh
borhood back on its feet.”


[1] See City of Sunset Hills website (available at: http://www.sunset-hills.com/index.html), Accessed on Feb. 16, 2006.

[2] Clay Barbour, “From Sunset Hills, a story of hollow homes and lives left in limbo,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb. 12, 2006; “Sunset Hills Aldermen officially halt retail development,” KSDK (available at: http://www.ksdk.com), Feb. 14, 2006.

[3] Phil Sutin, “Eminent domain is issue for some in Sunset Manor,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 13, 2005.

[4] Rick Frese, “’Land Grab’ opponents refuse to back down,” The Times, July 29 – August 4, 2005.

[5] Kathy Tripp, Personal Interview conducted by Justin Gelfand, December 2005.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Clay Barbour, “From Sunset Hills, a story of hollow homes and lives left in limbo,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb. 12, 2006.

[8] Clay Barbour, “Sunset Hills board kills troubled project, Shopping Center developer Novus misled the city, mayor says,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb. 15, 2006, at B1.

Gearing Up for Battle

The frontlines against eminent domain abuse in Florida have become even stronger, according to dozens of activists who attended the Castle Coalition’s workshop in West Palm Beach this weekend. Home and small business owners from all across the Sunshine State joined together with one another for an intensive one-day training session. The Castle Coalition’s regional conference, “From Hardship to Victory: Strategies for Winning the Fight to Stop Eminent Domain Abuse,” gave ordinary citizens the tools to defeat eminent domain for private gain—and to do so in their home states for free.

“The conference provided hands-on advice about how to fight eminent domain abuse,” said Frank Bubb, a retired attorney currently residing in Boca Raton.

Anne Castro, a community activist fighting eminent domain for private profit in Dania Beach, said, “The speakers’ presentations provided expert information and suggestions that can be used as tools in the fight against abusive eminent domain.”

Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Dana Berliner, who helped litigate Kelo v. City of New London before the U.S. Supreme Court, provided participants with an overview on the history of eminent domain and an in-depth presentation on preparing for legal action. Steven Anderson, coordinator of the Castle Coalition, taught activists how to build a grassroots coalition, and how to take the fight beyond one’s community; he underscored innovative strategies such as referenda and initiatives that activists have historically used successfully to defeat abusive condemnations outside of the courtroom. IJ Director of Communications Lisa Knepper provided participants with effective media-relations strategies, which are often the means by which people can bring attention to their disputes and garner public support.

Many of the conference’s participants reside in Florida cities that are among the worst abusers of eminent domain in the nation. Home and business owners from Riviera Beach showed up in force, ready to bolster their fight against the City’s infamous redevelopment plan that threatens to uproot more than 5,000 residents in the predominantly African-American, working-class community. Several activists from Boynton Beach, Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Lake Worth and Dania Beach also showed up in strong numbers.

Participants ranged from seasoned activists to people who have just joined the fight against eminent domain abuse. The Castle Coalition conference is designed to help everyone from the most experienced warrior to concerned citizens new to the issue.

Martha Babson, who implemented innovative and effective approaches to challenge Riviera Beach’s redevelopment plan, said that even though she reluctantly sold her home under the threat of eminent domain, she’s “reenergized” to bring the battle far beyond Riviera Beach. “Now to the state level,” she said.

Brenda Frank, a realtor, said, “I feel more confident that an individual can make a difference.”

And that’s exactly what is happening across Florida and the rest of the nation. In Florida, a number of legislative proposals that would curb eminent domain abuse are making their way through the state legislature and local legislatures. The Castle Coalition is keeping a close eye on legislation across the United States, and working with legislators and concerned citizens to craft laws that will do what the U.S. Supreme Court failed to do in Kelo: protect people’s homes and businesses from being taken by the government and given to other private parties.

Over the past two months, the Castle Coalition has held conferences in New Jersey, Arizona, Washington and Florida. In the upcoming months, the Castle Coalition will continue to bring “From Hardship to Victory” to hotspots across the nation, including California, Ohio and Missouri.

To find out how you can attend a Castle Coalition regional conference, contact Christina Walsh at cwalsh@ij.org.

From the Frontlines

A CastleWatch exclusive submitted by members of Stop the Sunset Hills Land Grab

It’s said the only things you can be certain of are death and taxes. In Sunset Hills, we aren’t sure of either.

Recently, the Sunset Hills Board of Aldermen and Mayor James Hobbs admitted their mistake and repealed many of the ordinances that would give the power of eminent domain and $42 million in TIF funds to Novus Cos. and Jonathan Browne to build a retail project in the Sunset Manor neighborhood. According to Mayor Hobbs, “The City, the Board of Aldermen and the TIF Commission were misled in regards to the accuracy of the proposal from Novus.” Other aldermen told the audience in attendance that they had been deceived by Novus and Browne and were “truly sorry this happened.”

The headline in the Post-Dispatch on February 15 said “Sunset Hills board kills troubled project.” Yet, Mayor Hobbs was quoted by a Post-Dispatch reporter that evening as refusing to rule out the possibility that Novus and Browne could come back yet again. “About the only way we’d listen to them (Novus and Browne) is if they came to us with a strong partner.”

The City also allowed Novus and Browne to remain the preferred developer, allegedly to collect monies owed to the City by Novus. Browne was at the board meeting and said he “remains committed to trying to get a deal done with the city.”

So when is dead really dead? And, how does the City leave any glimmer of hope that our tax money may still be used in any way by a developer who they admit misled them? How can we as residents of Sunset Manor really know the danger has passed?

The Mayor and aldermen now say they will appoint an eight-member task force to decide what the City should do about struggling Sunset Manor neighborhood. But, Hobbs says he will not appoint any resident or commercial property owner who opposed the City’s land grab to the task force. Opponents of the project were absolutely right from the start and chose to seek their guaranteed legal remedies for the injustice being done them. A St. Louis County Circuit Court agreed and overturned the city ordinances allowing the project. The City admits they were wrong. But, those in the right have been banned from deciding their own future.

This is nothing new. Mayor Hobbs and the board have repeatedly denied public comment, held closed meetings, called for emergency votes on the weekend, and rejected petitions from residents. The process has not been open to those affected.

Death and taxes may be certainties in other places. Just not Sunset Hills.