Hands Off My Farm, Say Two Pennsylvania Farmers

Nancy and Dick Saha asked just one thing of the City of Coatesville: “Save Our Farm.” The couple bought their Pennsylvania farmhouse in 1971, making lifelong dreams of owning a small horse farm a reality. With their five children, they moved into their 250-year-old Chester County residence, which at the time had no heat, electricity or indoor plumbing.

“It had just the bare necessities,” Dick recalled. “We were like a bunch of pioneers.”[1]

Over the next several years, the Sahas restored their home into a charming farmhouse, set upon the beauty and open space of the Pennsylvania countryside. As a result of their hard work, they had created a true family farm; two of their daughters ultimately married and built their family homes on adjacent land. The Saha homestead had undoubtedly become their American Dream and more—that priceless combination of breathtaking ambiance, family values and the chance to see their five grandchildren grow up next door.

That all changed in April 1999, when city officials marched into Dick’s business and notified him that the City intended to condemn his 38.2-acre farm. In a matter of minutes, Dick’s home, barn and lifestyle of 30 years was at stake—all for a golf course and a questionable redevelopment project.

“I was dumbfounded. They told me they were taking my barn, my house, my land. They were taking everything,” Dick said.

The City’s Tactics

On the night of April 12, 1999—the same day tax-hungry bureaucrats threatened the Sahas with eminent domain—the City held a public meeting to vote on the ordinance authorizing condemnation. Adding insult to injury, the City didn’t even tell the Sahas of this meeting, in large part due to the fact that the Saha homestead was actually in Valley Township, not Coatesville. Defenders of eminent domain for private development often contend that public meetings alone are enough to check abuse. For the Sahas, the City was poised to bulldoze a farm that meant everything to its owners, and two horse farmers were all that stood between the government’s wrecking ball and American property rights.

“That just made us madder,” Dick said, emphasizing that they retained legal counsel immediately. “Our lawyer told us we had about a 5 percent or 10 percent chance of winning, but we just didn’t believe it was right what they were doing.”

Within a few days, the Sahas joined together with their neighbors, whose property the City also hoped to take. Together, they launched a legal and political battle to save their farm and everything for which it stood.

From the outset, the Sahas committed themselves to find out everything they could about the City’s redevelopment plans, the proposed project and whether the condemnation was even legal. That’s when they came across the most painful fact; the original plan for the municipal golf course prepared in 1999 did not actually include their farmland. Instead, City officials planned to seize their farm for a “bigger project,” the details of which would never be disclosed.

Over the course of the next few years, City officials began to pursue plans for a mammoth recreation center: an 18-hole golf course, a smaller executive par-3 course, miniature golf, driving range, batting cages, fishing, boating, tennis courts, a clubhouse, a bowling alley and go-carts. Put simply, the City intended to seize the Saha farm for a project that was still in the works, and a redevelopment venture that would be largely privately owned.

Making the condemnation more unjust, the Sahas actually owned property in Valley Township (not Coatesville)—meaning they did not even have voting rights in the jurisdiction taking their property.

“The people taking our land weren’t even our representatives,” Dick said.

That Sahas committed themselves to take whatever legal and political steps necessary to protect a life they deeply cherished, and that’s exactly the course they pursued.

Grassroots Opposition

The Sahas certainly were not alone. Indeed, hundreds of supporters stood by their side as they launched a vigorous opposition to the condemnation plan. Nancy and Dick constantly rallied against the proposed eminent domain abuse, gathered signatures for a number of petitions, organized marches and protests, appealed to their state representatives and spoke out at public meetings.

“We gathered 1,800 petition signatures, all people against the eminent domain for this project,” Dick said.

The Sahas increasingly gained momentum, voicing their support for property rights at practically every town meeting at which the City’s redevelopment plans were discussed.

“We’ve gone to Township and City meetings, practically every meeting that’s around, and before you know it, you’re at another meeting,” Dick said, joking, “I guess these meetings keep me out of trouble.”

The Sahas also created a website, publicizing their eminent domain dispute and bringing attention to their cause. Over the course of the six-year dispute, Nancy and Dick became local icons of the campaign against eminent domain abuse—two honest Americans doing everything they could to keep what was already rightfully their own.

At the municipal level, the Sahas and their neighbors worked to effect change. City Manager Paul Janssen Jr.’s resignation in April 2005 marked the end of an era for the Sahas and the people of Coatesville. Soon after, City officials in line to take Janssen’s place all agreed to drop the Saha condemnation—and largely because they poured their heart and soul against seemingly insurmountable odds.

‘Bittersweet Victory’

In May 2005, Nancy and Dick reached a settlement with the City of Coatesville—after spending $300,000 of their retirement savings and six hard years defending their home from eminent domain abuse. Ultimately, the Sahas had pushed to elect new representatives and the City Council finally responded by agreeing to drop their condemnation plans.

“We voted out all seven council people who voted for this condemnation,” Dick said.

Under the terms of the settlement, the Sahas agreed to sell Coatesville five acres of the their farm, the City agreed to back down from its plan to condemn the rest of the property, and the Sahas gave the City first rights of refusal should they ever choose to sell their property. The bitter irony is the Sahas had offered to give the City those five acres for free when all this began in 1999, and the City refused—a “steep bank that we can’t use for anything,” according to Dick.

“It’s bittersweet,” Dick said. “The City has wasted millions of dollars of taxpayer money and for what? We had a lot to lose, but we figured you have got to stand up for what’s right. It just isn’t the American way of doing things.”

The Fight Continues

Nancy and Dick Saha staged an effective grassroots battle to protect their farm—and they won. But they’re not stopping there. The Sahas have worked tirelessly to fight eminent domain abuse—and they’re still very actively involved in the political struggle. They even attended the Castle Coalition’s December 2005 regional conference in Newark, N.J.

“We were lucky enough to be able to fight them. Think about how many people just can’t afford to fight their local governments,” Dick said.

That’s precisely why he and his wife have sp
oken out against eminent domain for private development, urging legislative reform at all levels of government to stop illegitimate condemnations once and for all.

“We send troops all over the world to protect people’s rights and we don’t even have fundamental property rights at home,” Dick said. “I just don’t understand why some politicians just don’t realize how serious this is.”

Since the U.S. Supreme Court opened the floodgates nationwide to eminent domain abuse in Kelo v. City of New London, it’s now more important than ever to stand up for property rights—and the Sahas are certainly carrying that torch.

Throughout the United States, hardworking Americans are facing disputes similar to the Sahas. And Dick had profoundly valuable advice.

“The best thing is to try to get a group of people who are sympathetic and see if you can change the minds of your local officials. If not, go and try to get a group to replace the people who are in charge. That’s what we did in Coatesville.”

He added, “Kelo galvanized the nation against eminent domain abuse. If you think something is un-American and wrong, you have to stand up for what is right.”

For more information, visit http://www.saveourfarm.com.


[1] Note: All quotations in this feature are from a personal interview with Dick Saha conducted by Justin Gelfand (December 12, 2005).

How Cities Can Declare Nice Homes & Businesses "Blighted"

In law, a single word can go a long way—and in many states, that word is “blight.” It is no longer used to describe properties that are dilapidated, rundown or rat-infested. Instead, state and local “blight” statutes throughout the United States are increasingly being used to condemn perfectly nice homes and small businesses for outrageous reasons.

Decades ago, lawmakers enacted urban renewal statutes as a way to restore residential and commercial slums. The basic idea behind these programs—which have long been recognized as failures even to urban planners—was to improve communities and eliminate dangers that particular properties posed to the health and safety of the public. Generally, urban renewal programs gave local officials the power to seize buildings that tangibly endangered citizens in these communities (though the police power already provided that ability).

Unfortunately, City officials across the nation have employed these same statutes to take or threaten beautiful homes and businesses, and the very idea behind urban renewal programs has been perverted to allow the seizure of properties that just happen to be in locations that are desirable to developers. That’s precisely how City officials in both Florida and New Jersey, for instance, have targeted the remaining affordable coastal communities for eminent domain abuse.

Local governments engage in so-called blight removal in accordance with local codes and state statutes, all of which trigger the power of eminent domain. The problem, however, is that these laws are written with such broad, sweeping language that leaves perfectly good property vulnerable to condemnation for private development. For example, some of the most common legal criteria under which property is taken by eminent domain are obsolescence, faulty arrangement or design, excessive land coverage, deleterious land use, and obsolete layout.

These criteria are so vague and so ubiquitous that they could be used to take literally every home, business and place of worship across the country. Lakewood, Ohio, considered homes “obsolescent” because they lacked three bedrooms, two full baths and a two-car garage. Norwood, Ohio, defended the condemnation of “deteriorating” properties on the absurd grounds that the neighborhood had “diversity of ownership” (Translation: Multiple homes were owned by different people. The very idea of individual home ownership was used as a means to condemn these homes.). City officials have declared entire neighborhoods “blighted”—including Grand Terrace, Calif., Alhambra, Calif., Jupiter, Fla., Riviera Beach, Fla., Sunset Hills, Mo., and the list goes on indefinitely. San Jose, Calif., declared a home blighted because it had wet leaves on its private tennis court. Daytona Beach, Fla., condemned three thriving businesses based on a 20-year old blight study. City officials found the charming downtown business district of Ardmore, Pa., to be blighted, despite the fact that the City designated it an official “historic district.” And, New York City bulldozed a dormitory and offices in Times Square to remove blight for the New York Times’ new headquarters—prime Manhattan real estate.

Increasingly, City officials are using “faulty arrangement” and “obsolete layout” to justify their use of eminent domain for private profit—and these terms are often used to describe businesses with parking in the front as opposed to the back, or homes with small side yards. Professional planners are finding homes that are just a few years old to be “obsolescent.” One of the more common gems in city halls across America is “excessive land coverage,” often used to describe buildings that no longer comply with current setback requirements. That’s of course because they were built before the government imposed those regulations. Standards may change, but the fundamental right to hold on to what’s yours does not.

Even more outrageous is the fact that states such as Alabama and Ohio allow condemnation for “preventing” blight. This means a locality can conclude that an area is not blighted and nonetheless take people’s property just because it might, at some indefinite point, become blighted. There’s not a single neighborhood in any of these states that would definitively fall outside of the legal blight criteria, leaving every home and business up for grabs. That’s one of the reasons there has never been a “blight study” that did not ultimately find blight.

The Castle Coalition is pleased to provide lawmakers with legislative language that respects the fundamental right of home and business owners to keep what they already own. Whether there should even be an exception for blight is a subject of much debate—but, at the very least, it is crucial that legislators make sure that blight can only apply to those few homes and businesses that are actually crumbling and a true danger to health and safety.

Until policymakers change state and local laws to bring government’s eminent domain power back to its original constitutional and ethical limits, abusive city officials will continue to get away with using blight statutes to seize any property that can simply make more money as something else. Reform is now more essential than ever—and, with the help of Castle Coalition members and concerned citizens, we’re sure to see it.

Join the Castle Coalition today!

Fighting Freeport

When summer strikes the coastal town of Freeport, Texas, shrimp boats migrate en masse to Western Seafood’s 30,000-square-foot processing facility. Wright Gore III’s grandfather purchased the wholesale shrimping business in 1949, and the thriving company has remained in the family ever since.

“He’s 85 years old now, and he calls me every day wanting to know if his business is going to be here tomorrow,”[1] Gore said.

His grandfather’s worries do not stem from financial concerns or entrepreneurial competition; Western Seafood’s facility rakes in approximately $40 million annually.[2] In fact, Gore and his family have every intention of maintaining the business as they have for half a century. But there’s the rub.

Freeport city officials pose a significant threat to the company’s very existence—and the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2005 decision in Kelo v. City of New London only worsened the situation. The ruling gave Freeport redevelopment officials and others nationwide the green light to condemn private property for private gain. In this Texas town, City officials had set eminent domain takings into motion in 2003, and Kelo, as it has around the country, served as a catalyst for the City to initiate a condemnation action.

City authorities plan on seizing Western Seafood’s property along the Old Brazos River and handing it over to a politically connected developer who intends to build an $8 million private boat marina.[3]

The consequence, according to Gore, “is that all of our livelihoods are in jeopardy as a result of this abuse of eminent domain.”

Threats of Condemnation from the Very First Meeting

After learning of the City’s proposal, Gore did everything possible to avoid a political or legal battle.

“Our first reaction was to act like businessmen and to work this out in a way that everybody wins,” he said. “We were hopeful that eminent domain wouldn’t be necessary, but we became increasingly wary when this threat figured very heavily into each and every conversation we had with the City.”

Early on, Freeport officials called eminent domain a tool they intended to use if necessary—constantly threatening to condemn the tract of land on which Western Seafood stands. There was never an attempt to include the business in the redevelopment plans, nor any effort to negotiate acceptable alternatives.

At the time, Gore was not as intimately familiar with eminent domain law as he would soon become.

“I only knew that it was used to take property for roads, bridges and streets. I was not aware that government could take my land and transfer ownership to somebody else,” he said.

Through a series of meetings and further research, Gore learned the details of the City’s economic development plan; the City would condemn his business and Trico Seafood Co., hand over the tracts of land to developer Freeport Marina, and Dallas developer Hiram Walker Royall would become the primary beneficiary of the eminent domain actions. Further research of state and local laws governing eminent domain led Gore to realize that in order to protect the business for which his family had worked so hard, he would have to launch a grassroots front—and that’s exactly what he did.

Taking Action at the Local Level

Wright Gore’s campaign against eminent domain abuse is as comprehensive as it gets. He first built a comprehensive grassroots base, and then proceeded to make as much noise as possible in an effort to garner every last bit of support that he could come across.

After all, every poll indicates that Americans from all walks of life oppose eminent domain for economic development—and Gore strategically capitalized on the political momentum to finally stop eminent domain abuse that’s spread nationwide.

“We coordinated our ‘Scandal in Freeport’ website and hung door hangers on everybody’s door informing them of the City’s blight designation,” Gore said. “We even rented out a 40-foot billboard advertising the website and the eminent domain abuse.”

Other political and public efforts included circulating petitions door-to-door in the community, notifying home and business owners that their respective properties were possibly at stake, staging rallies and marches, and speaking out at city council meetings.

“By going door-to-door with our petitions, I have found it reassuring to talk to people and see that this is a common fear and outrage amongst thousands of Freeport homeowners and business owners,” he added.

Gore and his grassroots coalition undoubtedly succeeded in getting the word out, and Royall responded in 2004 by filing a libel lawsuit in an effort to silence opposition to the proposed redevelopment and corresponding eminent domain takings.

“The lawsuit was a naked attempt to stifle our freedom of speech to redress grievances against our local government,” he said. “And the website stands today. We would not be discouraged from publishing the truth about the development agreements and about the master plans.”

The Battle Continues

In the summer of 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Kelo v. City of New London, a landmark case that would forever change the landscape of property law nationwide. For Gore and thousands of home and business owners nationwide, the Kelo decision met with profound disappointment.

“It was just a real kick in the gut. We had all felt like we had had the wind knocked out of us that day,” he said. “Little did we know, we lost that battle but we’re winning the war.”

That summer, the Castle Coalition brought together activists nationwide for its annual eminent domain conference in Washington, D.C., and Gore says that the training workshop provided him with the “nuts and bolts to make [our] voices heard at city hall.”

He added, “The highlight of that conference was lunching with Susette Kelo. She’s shown us all how to fight, and it really helped to build an esprit de corps among everyone there who fight the same battles for liberty all over the country.”

Back in Freeport, Gore has continued his fight in the courts of law and public opinion—and the Institute for Justice recently filed a brief on behalf of his business. On the public relations front, he has expanded on his outreach efforts and continues to see increased traffic on his website. He is optimistic that grassroots activism has proven immensely successful in staving off an abusive land-grab, and he hopes that the courts and his fellow citizens will ultimately protect his property and others from the government’s wrecking ball.

“It’s finally possible for all of us to see a day in the near future where we won’t face these threats to our liberty and property,” he said. For now, legislators in Texas and throughout the country have the historic opportunity to implement meaningful reform.

As for Western Seafood, Gore says his business can no longer exist as it has for the past fifty years if he loses the condemnation battle.

“That’s why we’ll take this all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if we have to.”


[1] Wright Gore, Personal Interview with Justin Gelfand, Feb. 6, 2006.

[2] Thayer Evans, “Freeport moves to seize 3 properties; Court’s decision empowers the city to acquire the site for a new marina,” Houston Chronicle, June 24, 2005.

[3] Ibid.

Say Goodbye to Hollywood

(Note: an update was added to this story on September 28, 2006)

Lights. Camera. Action. That’s about how quickly the City of Los Angeles is working to condemn thriving businesses on Hollywood’s most famous street corner for the sole benefit of a private developer. Among other harms, the government’s land grab on Hollywood and Vine will destroy everything one hardworking man has worked to create—and he understands that all too well.

“The City can pull the trigger at any time, and all you get is a 90-day notice,”[1] said Robert Blue, the owner of Bernard Luggage Company. “I grew up working in this luggage store, our whole family did. It was literally a mom-and-pop shop and I took it over in 2002 when my father passed away.”

The City is moving to condemn his 78-year-old building so a private developer can pursue a $400-million project slated to create a W hotel, luxury condominiums and glitzy shops and restaurants. According to the Los Angeles City Council, the grandiose redevelopment will displace more than 30 small businesses—and the hardworking people whom all Los Angelinos know give Hollywood its true character.

Blue phrased it best: “How is it public use to have a $300 a night hotel?”

   
  “The City can pull the trigger at any time. . . and all you get is a 90-day notice,”

—Robert Blue

   

The battle to save Bernard Luggage Co. from the government’s wrecking ball has plagued the Blue family for decades. As far back as 1986, Robert’s sister fought against the City when it included the business in a redevelopment zone—giving the government the power to take their property for private use, under California law.

“She was part of a group called Save Hollywood Our Town, and they did everything they could to save the businesses on this city block,” Blue said.

The City’s eminent domain powers died with the expiration of the redevelopment zone in 1998—but that would soon change. By 2002, rumors circulated around town that the City’s redevelopment agency was working to renew the redevelopment zone. Government officials calmed citizens’ concerns by assuring them there would be a public and political process before such action was taken, and that their voices would surely be taken under consideration. But as it turns out, redevelopment plans had already been in the works since 2001—before the City, through its political process, decided if redevelopment would even occur.

For the hardworking small business owners on Hollywood and Vine, the writing was already on the wall. That was particularly frustrating for Blue, considering his business has been around since 1946 and in the same building since 1965. In 1975, his parents formally purchased the building, and the family has owned and maintained it ever since.

The City’s plot to designate the property as “blighted” would not be believable as a Hollywood script. The architect who designed it, Carl Jules Weyl, went on to win an Academy Award in art direction and design for a future work. Furthermore, the building is well maintained and is home to a number of successful small businesses, poses no danger to the health or safety of the public, and reflects the character and history of the town. 

But despite all that, the City is still using such gems—like the fact that it lacks sufficient parking—to justify taking it and giving the land to another private party. What is interesting, however, is Blue’s reaction. “They are also saying that the immediate area around the building has an excess of parking. Does that mean the new development area is going to be declared blighted?”

Indeed, the City is also calling into question the very future of “Old Hollywood.” By teaming up with land-hungry developers bent on using government force for their private gain, City officials aim to replace the eclectic corner with cookie-cutter development. Doing so will replace a vibrant and energetic working-class neighborhood with what the City hopes will be a wealthier one—imposing all the costs on the people displaced accordingly. These small businesses include a hair-and-nail salon, Hollywood Import House, an insurance office, a cocktail lounge and even the business office of billboard legend and B-actress Angelyne—an icon known to every Los Angelino.

 
 
A billboard depicting a parody of a movie advertisement raises public awareness about the abuse of eminent domain in Hollywood, CA.
 

Many of these mom-and-pop shops have survived the city’s devastating riots, economic recessions, the 1994 earthquake, major road and subway construction, not to mention the advent of chain retail establishments. Bernard Luggage has even out-survived the mammoth Broadway Department Store, which was located across the street for years.

Blue said, “We survived all the hard times. We’re all paying our taxes, we’re all citizens, and we should all be treated equally. That’s not happening when they take our business and give it to someone else.”

City redevelopment officials are claiming that private commercial development in this area is impossible without eminent domain. Never mind that major redevelopment projects—several-hundred million dollar creations—are occurring without any government involvement whatsoever within blocks of Blue’s store, he says.

“Our business is doing well. We’d like to stay where we are. I’ve hired an architect to improve our building if necessary,” he said. “But I’m not a big developer so the City is ignoring me.”

Blue has retained legal counsel and has vowed to take his case all the way to the California Supreme Court, if necessary. He is also fighting the condemnations at the grassroots level, speaking out at city council meetings, raising awareness in the community and bringing as much attention to his cause as possible—pledging to do everything he possibly can to save his luggage store.

J.J. Abraham, vice president of Legacy Partners, one of the principal developers for the Hollywood and Vine project, said, “We’re not the big, bad developer coming in to squeeze out the little guy.”

In fact, that is exactly what is taking place and the Castle Coalition could not have phrased it better. As the result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2005 decision in Kelo v. City of New London, the floodgates for eminent domain abuse have been thrown open. Nationwide, Cities such as Los Angeles are condemning successful businesses solely and entirely because somebody else may make more money with the land—and there’s the fundamental problem.

Robert Blue and the other merchants on Hollywood and Vine are on the frontlines of the battle against eminent domain for private commercial development. They face the unholy alliance of tax-hungry city officials and land-hungry developers who are taking their properties with public force, not private negotiation.

William Jackson, chairman of the Los Angeles Redevelopment Agency Commission, said to the Los Angeles Times, “We have to make an extra effort not to destroy something as we attempt to create something.”

If that’s really the goal, the Castle Coalition has the perfect solution: Don’t use eminent domain for private development.

UPDATE: September 28, 2006

Robert Blue refused to sit idly and let his property be taken by greedy politicians and land-hungry developers. He fought back by getting active in his community, using many of the tips advocated by the Castle Coalition.

Bob attended the Castle Coalition’s regional eminent domain conference in Newport Beach, Calif. The conference was one of a number organized by the Castle Coalition to provide attendees with an opportunity to learn the strategies available to property owners to stop eminent domain abuse from occurring in their own backyards.

Bob’s dedication, passion, and hard work have paid off. After many months of fighting, Bob will get to keep his precious Bernard Luggage Building. The developers will simply build around the historic building.

Bob’s persistence and victory prove that property owners throughout the nation can fight and win. His story also proves that developers can most certainly finish their projects without resorting to eminent domain. The Castle Coalition is confident that property owners facing eminent domain abuse can follow our tips and strategies, just as Bob did—and they can win, too.

Four More States React to Kelo

With the signatures of their governors, Indiana, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Kentucky will become the latest states to enact laws addressing the abuse of eminent domain. Since the U.S. Supreme Court decided Kelo v. City of New London last summer, lawmakers throughout the nation have heeded the call to do what the nation’s highest court failed to do—protect the rights of property owners from eminent domain for private gain.

Indiana House Bill 1010 sailed through both legislative houses with overwhelming support. It provides common sense reform, redefining public use and providing objective criteria for the acquisition of property in other situations. Gov. Mitch Daniels (Rep.) is expected to sign the bill into law this week.

West Virginia House Bill 4048, which prohibits the use of eminent domain if it is primarily for economic development but provides an exception for “blight.” There appears to be some heightened scrutiny for non-blighted properties within a so-called blighted area. H.B. 4048 passed the House and Senate on the last day of West Virginia’s 2006 legislative session and has landed on the desk of Gov. Joe Manchin III (Dem.).

Wisconsin Assembly Bill 657 “prohibits the condemnation of property that is not blighted” in situations where the land will be conveyed or leased to a private entity, but it also contains an exception for blight removal, though it does provide additional protection for residential property. It passed the Senate in January and the Assembly on March 9 and now awaits Gov. Jim Doyle’s (Dem.) signature.

And Kentucky passed House Bill 508 this week that redefines public use, but contains a glaring and broad exception for the acquisition of blighted and slum areas. Gov. Ernie Fletcher (Rep.) has not indicated whether he will sign the bill into law.

Since Kelo, Legislatures in 47 states have introduced, considered or passed legislation aiming to limit the government’s eminent domain powers in instances of private use. Indiana, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Kentucky will join a number of states, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas and Utah, that have addressed in some way the issue of eminent domain abuse. This is no doubt the beginning of the legislative reform that the nation is likely to see, as legislation in more than 25 other states remains active.

To find out more information about these bills, or to read the text of the proposed legislation, check out the Castle Coalition’s comprehensive legislative center.

Flower Power

It is not yours anymore. That is what the Stockbridge, Ga., City Council told Mark and Regina Meeks when it condemned their beloved flower shop to hand it over to a wealthy developer.

In August 2005, the City used its power of eminent domain to condemn the Meeks’ mom-and-pop shop and seven other homes and small businesses to make way for luxury townhouses, upscale shops and offices. It was only after the Georgia couple sued to save their American Dream that the City decided to place a proposed new City Hall building on the Meeks’ property—giving the land-grab the appearance of serving a public use.

Fast-forward to March 2006. Despite overwhelming opposition from home and business owners, the mayor, concerned citizens and community activists, the City Council still voted 3-1 against saving the Meeks’ property from the government’s wrecking ball.

That kind of negotiation—old-fashioned, voluntary, and without the threat of eminent domain—was unacceptable to City officials. Instead, the City Council chose to take private property by government force, and to do so against the will of the true owners.

The City is not truly seeking redevelopment. If that were the goal, City officials would not have intervened in a deal between the Meeks and a private developer planning to revitalize downtown Stockbridge. That kind of negotiation—old-fashioned, voluntary, and without the threat of eminent domain—was unacceptable to City officials. Instead, the City Council chose to take private property by government force, and to do so against the will of the true owners.

Fortunately, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue signed into law a bill this week curbing the abuse of eminent domain—effectively prohibiting the kind of abuse that is happening in Stockbridge. Unfortunately for the Meeks, the law only applies to future abuse. On the state level, legislators appear to realize that the power of eminent domain left unchecked in the hands of local officials all to often results in abuse. Last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London opened the floodgates for eminent domain abuse nationwide, and legislators in 47 states have responded by introducing, considering or enacting bills to further protect the fundamental right of individuals to keep what they rightfully own.

In a recent op-ed, Mark and Regina Meeks wrote, “If we lose our property, please don’t say look at those poor people who just lost their Florist Shop to the City of Stockbridge; instead, realize ‘if they can take his flower shop, my property isn’t safe either.’”

This week, a Henry County judge ruled that the City cannot use eminent domain to take Stockbridge Florist & Gifts, arguing that the City failed to show that the shop would be used for public purposes. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Both sides describe the dispute as a soap opera with several twists and turns. How it will end, neither side will predict.”

The Castle Coalition urges the City of Stockbridge to respect the rights of the Meeks and all other home and business owners in town—and to back off from illegitimate land-grabs in city hall and in court. Using the exact same justification, City officials can abuse their power and take any home, business, farm or place of worship—emphasizing just how important it was for state legislators to protect private property from illegitimate government land grabs and for others nationwide to follow Georgia’s example.

“When this is all over, no matter the outcome, I will be able to look in the mirror and say to myself that I did everything I could to protect my family’s rights,” Mark Meeks wrote. “I hope you will be able to do the same.”

For more information on eminent domain reform in Georgia, check out the Castle Coalition’s Legislative Center.

St. Louis Voters Speak at the Ballot Box

Enough. That is the message voters across St. Louis County, Mo., sent to their elected officials as they kicked eminent domain abusers out of office and replaced them with candidates whose pledges not to condemn private property for private development became central tenets of their campaigns.

In Sunset Hills, one of the nation’s most egregious abusers of eminent domain for private profit, four aldermen and the mayor—all incumbents—lost to a group of candidates who say they were inspired to seek political office after watching City officials destroy an entire neighborhood by planning to seize and bulldoze hundreds of homes and replace them with a $184 million high-end shopping center.[1]

In the weeks leading up to the election, elected officials in the St. Louis suburb understood that eminent domain could cost them their jobs. A week before the polls opened, incumbent Alderman Robert Brockhaus said, “This election is starting to seem more like a referendum on eminent domain than it is an actual judgment on a candidate’s job performance.”[2] He and four other incumbents, including Mayor Jim Hobbs, lost to mayor-elect John Hunzeker and four new aldermen.

Eminent domain was not only a hot-button issue in Sunset Hills. Manchester—where city officials approved condemnations for a high-end shopping center called Manchester Highlands—voted in Asa Wilson for the mayoral seat over Joe Mastoianni. Wilson’s platform emphasized her opposition to eminent domain for economic development. In Creve Coeur, incumbent Jeff Mitchell, a cheerleader for eminent domain abuse, lost his seat to James Wang.[3]

This election was the first opportunity for voters to voice their opposition to eminent domain abuse at the ballot box since the U.S. Supreme Court decided Kelo v. City of New London last summer, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Perhaps more significantly, municipalities throughout St. Louis County have initiated eminent domain for private development in unparalleled numbers since Kelo, despite overwhelming public outcry from concerned citizens and activists.

In the past year, 47 state Legislatures have responded to Kelo by introducing, considering or passing legislation aiming to curb the abuse of eminent domain. On the state level, Georgia, Indiana and South Dakota are the latest to enact meaningful reform, while West Virginia, Wisconsin and Kentucky acknowledged the problem and began the reform effort, but still need to finish the task. Missouri, one of the poster cases of eminent domain abuse nationwide, has still failed to address eminent domain abuse with reform at the state level. Governor Matt Blunt formed an Eminent Domain Task Force, which suggested few substantive changes to state law—and the Legislature has not indicated any sincere intention to tackle the heart of the problem: whether the government should be able to condemn homes and small businesses for the benefit of another private party. The one piece of legislation that appears to be moving, which did not provide much protection as introduced, has already been watered down.

Meanwhile, the municipal elections in St. Louis County reflect a trend throughout the nation at the local level, where local governments have passed ordinances and resolutions prohibiting eminent domain for private development.

City officials should heed the message St. Louis voters sent to their elected officials. Public outcry against eminent domain abuse is nearly universal across the United States—and voters are willing to take action at the ballot box, though it is a shame governments have the power to put home and small business owners in this position in the first place.


[1] Clay Barbour, “Sunset Hills ousts five over eminent domain,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Apr. 5, 2006, at D1.

[2] Clay Barbour, “Eminent domain’s electoral fallout,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Mar. 31, 2006.

[3] Clay Barbour, “Sunset Hills ousts five over eminent domain,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Apr. 5, 2006, at D1.

Where Have All the Developers Gone?

In the late 1960s, bulldozers flattened the Massachusetts Town of Hull. Summer cottages, single-family homes, a cobbler’s shop, thriving small businesses and a post office fell to the government’s wrecking ball—all in the name of urban renewal.[1]

City officials destroyed the modest 13-acre community on Nantasket Beach with the intention of replacing it with a wealthier one. It was a classic case of the urban renewal movement; the government kicked the working class out of their beachfront properties in order to hand the land over to the affluent. After all, the government claimed, doing so would generate more jobs and taxes and the public would benefit accordingly—the same justification used by the majority of the justices in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Kelo v. City of New London decision.

Only one problem—the plan backfired. Once the government had already bulldozed the neighborhood, a series of proposals hit the drawing boards. First, City officials approved the construction of extravagant, high-end condominiums. That project soon fell through. Then, there were talks of senior housing, followed by discussions of corporate offices, then retail establishments, then a supermarket. Every project failed—and the City continued to possess a prime plot of seaside land with nothing to show for it but a few parking spots in the summer. Today, nearly four decades later, the land still sits vacant—bearing the legacy of jobs, taxes and an entire community destroyed.

   
 
Remarkably, a mere few hundred thousand dollars forty years later is about the best the City can hope for, not to mention all the money the government lost by playing real estate broker for decades.
   

Now, the Hull Redevelopment Authority is coming back to the drawing board to consider yet another private development proposal. This project, spearheaded by developer Stuart Bornstein of Chatham Reality Properties, is slated to create lavish condominiums expected to cost $350,000 and up. He has also entertained discussions about possibly creating a public park on some of the vacant land.

“This will bring the project to closure,” Carl R. Katzeff, chairman of the City’s redevelopment authority, said. “It will deliver a tremendous local and regional asset in terms of the open space and park, and it will bring over $300,000 in revenue to the community.”

Remarkably, a mere few hundred thousand dollars forty years later is about the best the City can hope for, not to mention all the money the government lost by playing real estate broker for decades. Since the 1960s, this prime beachfront property has been used only for summertime parking. It’s not that Bornstein’s new development plan promising to convert the empty land into a lively neighborhood is a bad prospect at this point. It’s that the property was exactly what Bornstein’s now planning before the government abused its power of eminent domain for private development, marking the injustice of the situation. And, of course, there is the sad truth that if history repeats itself as it has for decades, this project could also fail, leaving the government at the drawing board without a viable plan once again.

The Town’s redevelopment fiascos should serve as a lesson to City officials across the United States—especially those who justify the abuse of eminent domain on the exact same grounds as Hull justified its urban renewal program. In fact, even professional planners and developers have long recognized urban renewal programs of the 1960s and 1970s as complete failures.

The destruction of this community on the Massachusetts coast was no doubt a mistake of the past—but local officials throughout the country continue to make that exact same mistake today. They have just replaced the phrase “urban renewal” with equally amorphous synonyms such as “blight removal” or “economic revitalization.” Regardless of the verbiage, it is wrong when the government takes people’s homes and businesses for the benefit of a private developer. And it just rubs salt into the wounds of the victims of eminent domain abuse when these projects fail to meet even the promises and expectations of their supporters, as they often do.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2005 ruling in Kelo v. City of New London, City officials have increasingly targeted modest coastal communities for the government’s wrecking ball. Once again making far-fetched promises of taxes and jobs, redevelopment authorities continue to threaten and file condemnation for private use against homes, businesses and places of worship. Cities and developers recognize that Hull’s urban renewal plan was wrong and a mistake in the 1960s, and the error is just as plain today as it was then. But the lesson may indeed be learned. City officials and legislatures are no doubt remembering Hull and the countless other neighborhoods victimized by urban renewal policies as they consider eminent domain reforms in state capitals across the country.  It is a nationwide movement with national consequences; one the Castle Coalition hopes they will get right—before they destroy even more.

Kentucky Still Needs Meaningful Eminent Domain Reform

Your home is not yours anymore.  That is what the City of Newport told 150 homeowners in the Cote Brilliant neighborhood when it condemned their properties by eminent domain in 2002 for the Newport Promenade shopping center.  Designating the neighborhood as “blighted”—even though it had the second-highest economic base in Newport and consisted of $200,000 homes—City officials bulldozed the neighborhood, the developer backed out of the deal, and the once-charming neighborhood now sits in shambles.

This month, Gov. Ernie Fletcher signed into law House Bill 508, legislation that redefines “public use” under the State’s eminent domain laws—but a bill that does not go far enough to stop even this kind of eminent domain abuse from happening again.  That is because the law contains a large loophole allowing for the acquisition of so-called “blighted” and “slum” areas.  The loophole, which references the state’s vague and sweeping blight statutes, gives local governments the power to continue using eminent domain for private profit.  Kentucky municipalities can still take homes and businesses that are old or obsolescent and are economic liabilities—meaning they do not provide enough tax money.

Acknowledging the need for legislative reform, Kentucky lawmakers joined legislators from across the country in a nationwide effort to reform eminent domain laws after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Kelo v. City of New London last summer.  The now-infamous case, which gave municipalities the green light to condemn private property for private profit, left the need to protect property rights in the hands of lawmakers.  Since Kelo, legislators in 47 states and Congress have responded to overwhelming public outcry by introducing, considering and passing legislation aiming to limit the government’s eminent domain power.  It is important that Kentucky legislators pass further reform in the next legislative session striking at the heart of the issue—stopping the government from taking property from one person and giving it to another private party.

The beneficiaries of eminent domain abuse know the new law won’t stop them from taking people’s property for private profit.   In fact, it’s likely these beneficiaries are the main reason such a loophole exists.  Until the state tightens the definition of blight, every home, small business, farm and place of worship can be seized and bulldozed by the government if City officials simply assert the land could generate more taxes or create more jobs as something else.

In February, South Dakota became the first state to tackle the fundamental problem by enacting a law that prohibits government agencies from seizing private property by eminent domain “for transfer to any private person, nongovernmental entity, or other public-private business entity.”  Indiana followed by enacting broad, comprehensive reforms to its eminent domain laws in March.  And, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue signed into law legislation that tightens the state’s definition of blight to properties that are truly a danger to health or safety.

Kentucky House Bill 508 is a good start and contains very good language, but the task is not finished.  Home and business owners in the Bluegrass State are not much more protected today than they were before the governor signed the legislation into law, since the law used to engage in abuse has been left untouched.

It is time the Legislature enacts the kind of reform that South Dakota, Indiana and Georgia have written into their state codes.  Even with this new legislation, Newport City officials—and their counterparts throughout the state—can still abuse their eminent domain power by designating charming neighborhoods “blighted.”

Only after lawmakers tackle the fundamental problem in the next legislative session will Kentuckians finally be secure in their fundamental right to keep what they already rightfully own.  Only then, will their homes truly be theirs.

A Brooklyn Activist Fights Eminent Domain Abuse

You’d think New Yorkers would appreciate the American Dream.  It’s a town built on hard work and innovation, a population from countries far and near, cities large and small—an economy built on small business.

So it should come as a surprise that billionaire developer Bruce Ratner and one of his companies, Forest City Ratner, has teamed up with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Governor George Pataki and Senator Charles Schumer, to seize and bulldoze homes and small businesses belonging to hundreds of families in Brooklyn.  The plan, officially unveiled in December 2003, calls for “Atlantic Yards,” a multi-billion dollar residential, commercial and arena development on 22 acres of prime real estate just across from Manhattan.  The project, the City said, would put Brooklyn on the map by bringing a state-of-the-art sports stadium, retail and high-end condominiums.[1]

“When hasn’t Brooklyn been on the map,” said longtime homeowner Patti Hagan, who founded the Prospect Heights Action Coalition to oppose the government’s abusive redevelopment.  “Our neighborhood has one of the largest collections of brownstone houses.  Our neighborhood has character, a sense of history and beauty on everyday, ordinary streets, and Ratner is trying to destroy it all.”[2]

‘Simple Math’:  An Activist Spotted Eminent Domain Abuse Early On

The City’s preliminary discussions of “Atlantic Yards” hinged on a false promise:  the pledge that the 22-acre development would be built on an 8.3-acre rail yard.  In fact, Forest City Ratner’s offices refused to provide residents of Brooklyn with a map for the development project and attempted to appease citizens by telling them the project was in its early stages and they need not worry about anything—a common refrain among eminent domain abusers.

   

“When I came to this neighborhood in 1979, people were abandoning buildings, houses were boarded up, and there were drugs and crime,” Hagan said.  “But people began to buy buildings and fix them up with their own sweat, and one by one, the buildings and the mom-and-pop storefronts began to strengthen.  We built a solid neighborhood, one that is a true success story.  We don’t need this supposed engine of economic development.  This is a thriving, successful neighborhood.”

 
   

“It didn’t take long to figure out the rail yards were only 8.3 acres—meaning the rest of it would be condemned.  It was simple math,” Hagan said.

The Prospect Heights Action Coalition, which had formed one year earlier in response to a different developer preying on two properties, immediately held meetings to discuss the possibility of eminent domain abuse.

“We started organizing.  Almost immediately, we had a street demonstration and wonderful signs publicizing the government’s abuse,” she said.

Indeed, with the threat of eminent domain in its arsenal, Forest City Ratner began to approach residents living in the redevelopment area urging them to sell their beloved homes.  The City, refusing to take condemnation off the table and publicly favoring the project, responded to early grassroots activism by reassuring residents once again that they had nothing to fear.  But soon thereafter, New York Magazine published a map of the redevelopment area, detailing the homes and businesses slated for demolition.

Rhetoric flooding local newspapers and the airwaves of local media emphasized Brooklyn’s alleged need for redevelopment—all part of a calculated public relations effort by a land-hungry developer and tax-hungry local officials. 

Hagan has a different outlook, rooted in 27 years in the neighborhood and personal experience.

“When I came to this neighborhood in 1979, people were abandoning buildings, houses were boarded up, and there were drugs and crime,” she said.  “But people began to buy buildings and fix them up with their own sweat, and one by one, the buildings and the mom-and-pop storefronts began to strengthen.  We built a solid neighborhood, one that is a true success story.  We don’t need this supposed engine of economic development.  This is a thriving, successful neighborhood.”

Grassroots Warfare

The Prospect Heights Action Coalition transitioned into full force.  After contacting the Institute for Justice and Castle Coalition, its 12-member leadership core spread posters and stickers throughout the neighborhood and focused on spreading awareness—a strategy emphasized in the Castle Coalition’s Survival Guide.

“We started a petition and we got thousands of signatures.  We had a couple hundred people coming to our meetings,” Hagan said, emphasizing that residents early on struggled to accept that they were in the crosshairs of the project.  “We posted a flyer all over the neighborhood that read ‘Do they want to demolish your home?’”

The Coalition also spoke at City Hall repeatedly, staged rallies and protests, and marched through town raising awareness.  After eight months of grassroots advocacy, they joined together with other citizen groups fighting to save their homes and businesses from the government’s wrecking ball—forming an umbrella advocacy group called Develop—Don’t Destroy Brooklyn.

While spreading awareness and fighting against the government’s proposed use of condemnation for Ratner’s private profit, the Coalition focused on fundraising.

“We held bake sales, rummage sales, sold t-shirts.  We even had a walk-a-thon,” Hagan said.

How About an Alternative Plan?

In January 2005, Prospect Heights residents and business owners proposed their “unity plan,” calling for development on the rail yards and the removal of a sports arena from the equation.  The plan emphasized that it would not include eminent domain for private use, that it would divide the land into multiple plots so many developers and community groups could develop it over time and that it would respect the rights of residents to keep their beloved properties while still sparking economic development in the neighborhood.

But City officials dismissed the proposal—instead agreeing to give Ratner financial incentives and reaffirming its unambiguous intention to seize and bulldoze people’s property by eminent domain if so-called “voluntary” negotiations failed.

Ratner also began publishing his own newspaper, the Brooklyn Standard, which raved about the project’s purported benefits and featured letters and op-eds from politicians pushing the project.

Meanwhile, Hagan and other Brooklyn activists worked with the media to publicize the truth behind the project, but they hit obstacles, she said.  At the outset, the New York Times buried its coverage of the development in the sports section.  (An interesting note: Ratner developed the newspaper’s new downtown headquarters, a project also involving eminent domain.) 

Recent Developments

   
 

While the development company claims that residents sold their homes and businesses voluntarily, many citizens say they only sold under the threat of eminent domain

   

In March 2006, Forest City Ratner announced it owned or controlled nearly 90 percent of the land slated for redevelopment.  While the development company claims that residents sold their homes and businesses voluntarily, many citizens say they only sold under the threat of eminent domain.

“I’ve been opposed to this development from the beginning,” said 25-year old Mark Drury, a tenant of a building slated for demolition.  “What’s so insidious about the process, and the way it breaks apart the neighborhood, is that by then I was battling with my landlord, against whom I had nothing.”[3]

Mark Wancer echoed similar sentiments.  He said, “I felt my choice was, ‘Don’t accept the buyout and live next to a construction site for the next 10 years’ or ‘Accept the money and move on…. The whole process was unpleasant.”[4]

Meanwhile, Ratner also announced a supposed decrease in the overall redevelopment area, reducing it by 5 percent.

But Hagan says that is misleading at best.

“The so-called reduction size of it is still 1-million square feet larger than the original proposal.  That’s more eminent domain abuse,” she said.

A Regional Battle Becomes a National Fight

Concerned citizens and grassroots activists in Brooklyn have pledged to continue fighting for their fundamental right to keep what they rightfully own. 

“There’s always going to be somebody bigger and richer who is able to do something more taxable with your little piece of the Earth,” Hagan said.  “That’s why you have to fight for it.”

She encouraged home and business owners across the nation facing eminent domain abuse to join a nationwide battle gaining momentum by the day.  For those who choose to stage grassroots battles, Hagan has some gems of advice stemming from personal experience.

“Wake up and shout.  Take to the streets.  Put up signs in your windows.  Start educating your fellow citizens as much as possible.  Get your local press to start investigating.  Advocate reform from government at every level.  In our case, we discovered Ratner has a terrible track record of actually living up to his word.  Do research on the project’s finances and any subsidy plans.  And don’t let them destroy your community.”

The Castle Coalition could not agree more.

Find out more about how you can help fight eminent domain abuse.


[1] Nicholas Confessore, “Forced to Move, Some Find Greener Grass,” New York Times, Apr. 10, 2006, at B1.

[2] Note: All quotations of Patti Hagan are from a telephone interview by Justin Gelfand conducted April 12, 2006.

[3] Nicholas Confessore, “Forced to Move, Some Find Greener Grass,” New York Times, Apr. 10, 2006, at B1.

[4] Ibid.