Standing up to Injustice

Lately, some cities in America have become so desperate in their attempts to redevelop to obtain more tax revenue, that they will take eminent domain abuse one-step further—not only will they use their “despotic” power to acquire property for private development, they will even loan money to businesses that are expected to bring in that higher tax revenue.

Welcome to Arcadia, Calif., where the City’s bureaucrats were more concerned about expanding a luxury car lot and higher tax revenue than they were about protecting the regular, working class folks of the town, located just outside Los Angeles.

In 2005, some small business owners in Arcadia found themselves living the nightmare of what Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor so accurately predicted: those who would most feel the horrors of the Kelo v. City of New London decision would be those with the least political power.

The Rusnak Arcadia Mercedes-Benz dealership had sought to expand its already booming business, but standing in its way were an Elks Lodge, Rod’s Grill, The Church in Arcadia and Arcadia Self Storage. The only problem was that these small, locally owned businesses did not want to move from their long-owned properties.

Manny Romero, owner of Rod’s Grill, put it best when he said, “I’m not interested in moving. I’d like to stay.”[1]

Romero’s neighbors also wanted to stay in the properties they had long occupied. The Elks Lodge had been there since 1957, and The Church was a staple of the community.[2] Common sense and human decency meant that either the Mercedes dealership would have to expand upward (instead of outward), or simply seek a bigger lot elsewhere.

But in Arcadia—and anywhere else in the world of eminent domain abuse—the story just gets uglier.

The Arcadia City Council was acutely aware of the mind-boggling fact that the Mercedes dealership was bringing in roughly 10 percent of the City’s tax revenue—and that the intended expansion would bring in even more.[3]

By March 2006, despite the vocal opposition of the business owners and countless community members—including seven former mayors of Arcadia[4]—City Council members voted unanimously to condemn one of the Rusnak’s neighboring businesses, Arcadia Self-Storage.[5]

The City was intent on spreading this practice to the other businesses, but there was a snag in the plans: Rusnak Mercedes-Benz didn’t have the funds necessary to acquire the properties it needed to expand.

Coveting the potential new tax revenue and not content to allow the dealership to finance its own expansion, the City decided that it would lend the owner of the luxury car dealership $8 million to finish the project.[6]

But the people of Arcadia wouldn’t take this abuse of eminent domain lying down: In April 2006, they elected only those candidates to City Council who were openly opposed to using eminent domain for Rusnak.[7]

By standing up and saying “NO” to eminent domain abuse, the people of Arcadia and their new City Council have been able to stop condemnation proceedings from that point forward. The City is still in final negotiations to acquire The Church in Arcadia, but Rod’s Grill and Elks Lodge will remain intact.

Though not a complete victory—land was still taken for private development—Arcadians stood up for what they believed in and showed that the injustice that is eminent domain abuse can be stopped. The Castle Coalition applauds their effort.


[1] Gene Maddaus, “Arcadia expansion may turn ugly,” Pasadena Star-News, January 8, 2006.

[2] Mary Bender, “Dis-Lodged?” Pasadena Star-News, January 31, 2005.

[3] Jim Chiswell, “Eminent domain case hits facility,” Self Storage Education Network, June 1, 2006.

[4] Mary Bender, “Redevelopment fight looms in Arcadia, Calif.,” San Gabriel Valley Tribune, January 5, 2005.

[5] Gene Maddaus, “Eminent domain vote paves way for Mercedes expansion,” Pasadena Star-News, April 12, 2006.

[6] Mary Bender, “Redevelopment fight looms in Arcadia, Calif.,” San Gabriel Valley Tribune, January 5, 2005.

[7] Kenneth Todd Ruiz, “Arcadia secures half of land for dealer,” San Gabriel Valley Tribune, September 15, 2006.

Hollywood Store Owner No Longer Singing the Blues

 

Ziggy Cruse, Bob Blue and Larry Gilbert (Left to Right) are all smiles as they celebrate the victory over the City of Los Angeles and a developer to save Blue's Bernard Luggage Building from being taken through eminent domain.
 
   

The City of Los Angeles got a lot more than they bargained for when they tested the mettle of one shop owner at the corner of historic Hollywood and Vine.[1]  Robert Blue stood up to the greedy developers and City officials, and through his hard work, he is now able to keep what is rightfully his.

As Hollywood grows and changes, Blue’s luggage store will get to participate in that change—not be a long-forgotten memory of Old Hollywood.  But that was not always the case for this small business owner, who inherited the half-century old Bernard Luggage Building from his parents in 2002.

In 2001, the City looked into teaming up with a private developer to build a luxury hotel and high-end retail shops.  Blue’s property was smack-dab in the middle of the proposed “redevelopment,” and he responded to the threat right from the start.

“The main thing was that we did not take our time in dealing with this,” said Blue.  “We worked very long and hard to save the property, and that was the most important thing.”

Almost immediately, Blue contacted the Castle Coalition to see if there was anything he could do in order to save his property.  He followed the advice on the website and read through the “Eminent Domain Survival Guide.”

“The Survival Guide is totally recommended,” Blue added.  “And the best advice I can give to other people is that they should never ignore a single letter or warning.  They should do all they can to keep what is theirs.”

Blue and a number of other threatened home and small business owners also attended a regional Castle Coalition conference in Newport Beach, Calif., in April.  The conference was one of a number organized by the Castle Coalition in response to the dreadful U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London to share with property owners strategies to stop eminent domain abuse from occurring in their own backyards.

Blue hung up the Castle Coalition’s “NOT FOR SALE” signs in his storefront window.  He continually wrote letters to the editors of local newspapers and generated his own publicity in order to raise awareness in the community about the abuse that was occurring right in their own City.

“The free conference was so professional and so well organized, and best of all, it helped me to network and to figure out a strategy that would help me defend my own property,” explained Blue.  “I have been to expensive business conferences that weren’t done nearly as well or as effective.”

He says that the things he learned and the support he got from the Castle Coalition were instrumental in the fight to keep his property—and win.

Of all the things he learned, Blue says that the tips for publicity and strategy were overall the most effective.  He was able to improve his communications with the press and with community members, and by staying on the firm message that his building was “Not For Sale,” the message was eventually delivered to the Los Angeles City Council and the development corporation.

But Blue says that he could never have saved his own property if it weren’t for the dedication and passion of his employees and fellow community members.  One employee in particular, Ziggy Kruse, had previously lost a job to eminent domain and was not prepared to lose another.

Described by Blue as a “super-fighter,” Kruse did everything from write letters, to appear on television and radio interviews, to design the now famous billboard that sat atop one of the Hollywood businesses. It read, “Murder on Vine Street: Eminent Domain Kills Small Business.”

“Employees are always forgotten when things like this happen,” said Blue as he proudly spoke of his super-fighting employee.  It is often the case that when cities and developers claim they are doing development for more revenue, they are inevitably kicking out the hard-working employees who have been working in those communities for many years. “They’re totally against the small people.”

Once the publicity grew and the community began to take notice, the City Council had no choice but to start negotiations with Blue.  He said it was “like shining a light on mice and watching them scatter.”

Finally, in September 2006, Bob Blue experienced a hard-earned victory:  the City decided to settle with Blue and allow him to keep his building safe from the government’s wrecking ball.[2]  The development company will simply have to build around the store, yet another example of development that occurs while respecting property rights.  At this point, Blue is looking at doing some of his own restorations to the building, which will be included along a row of other retail shops, and is even thinking of building a loft residence above the store.

When times get tough and it seems like land-hungry developers and greedy bureaucrats may get the better of some small business or family home in your neighborhood, just remember the story of Blue and his little “mom-and-pop” luggage store in Hollywood, Calif.

Just remember Robert Blue’s encouraging words:  “You can win.”


[1] Note: All quotations in this article are from a personal interview with Robert Blue, conducted by Melanie Harmon on October 17, 2006.

[2] Bob Pool, “Hollywood luggage shop won’t have to pack its bags,” Los Angeles Times, September 28, 2006.

Local Government Has Tax-Hungry Appetite for Eminent Domain

When the owners of a popular and successful seafood restaurant in Westville, N.J., were threatened with eminent domain abuse, they took a creative approach to activism.

Westville, a small working class town that rests at a tributary of the Delaware River, is home to many small family businesses operated by third and fourth generation owners.[1]

But apparently, the tax revenue those businesses have brought in for more than five decades was not good enough for the tax-hungry City Council.[2]  As is often the case in middle-class neighborhoods across the country—especially those with nice waterfront views—the City wanted more tax revenue and decided to use its power of eminent domain to make way for private development.  This is a common tactic used by cities whose current property owners are not providing enough money for the government.

The Achilles family restaurant, along with a few other businesses, are standing in the way of the desired “luxury” development, which would considerably raise the tax revenues for the City.  Letting the entire community know that their business was “Not for sale,” the Achilles family had to come up with a strategy effective enough to get the attention of everyone, including the City Council and the developers.

“We’re happy here, and we don’t want to leave a good thing,” said Dolores Achilles, owner of the Grabbes Seafood Restaurant.[3]

The name “Grabbes” (pronounced “grab-ees”) suddenly took on a whole new meaning for the Achilleses, as the City pushed heavily for a land-grab of the quaint restaurant.  In addition to following the advice they had gotten from a regional Castle Coalition conference in Newark, N.J., last November, the Achilleses used their own creative ideas to raise awareness about the issue of eminent domain abuse.

To do that, several dishes on the Grabbes Seafood Restaurant menu were renamed to bring attention to the looming threat of eminent domain for private commercial development.

The Caesar salad has now become the “Seizure” salad, topped with a dollop of  “Our House Dressing,” in honor of the Achilles’ home, which is attached to the restaurant.

And the crab cake sandwich has now become the “Ggrab cake sandwich,” complete with a side of “Lost Freedom Fries.”

The creative new “Eminent Domain Abuse Menu” has attracted so much attention that the Achilleses generated local press stories, which allowed the message to get back to the community that this horrible abuse was occurring in their own backyards.

Despite their strong stand against the development that would result in the bulldozing of their home, the Achilles continue to receive threats from the developers.  A recent letter to the Achilles matter-of-factly stated:  “We will refer the matter to the borough for formal condemnation.”[4]

Earlier this year, two City Council members were replaced by candidates claiming to oppose the abuse of eminent domain. voters because the candidates claimed to be against the abuse of eminent domain. This change gave Dolores Achilles a glimmer of hope that their property would be protected. Unfortunately, however, the two new members have, according to Dolores, “flip-flopped” on the issue. Dolores thinks it’s because “they want to bring in a ‘better’ class of people to raise tax revenue.” In fact, Councilman Woodrow Dooley – who now supports the project – has recently said that it "would bring a different class of people to the town." [5]

This development on the City Council inspired the Achilles family to make yet another addition to their special menu:  the “Flip flop hamburger,” also served with a helping of the “Lost Freedom Fries.”  The latest edition of the menu, nicknamed the “Council Special,” sparked much additional attention from the rest of the community.

As of October 2006, the Achilles restaurant and family home still stand in opposition to the eminent domain threat.  But the Achilleses remain steadfast and confident that by continuing to declare that their property is “Not for sale,” they just may be able to save what they have always owned.

“People think that if they get loud about the threat they will end up not getting anything at all,” said Dolores. “But the best thing we ever did was to be vocal.”


[1] “Westville’s redevelopment plan promising,” New Jersey Courier-Post, October 12, 2005.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Note: All quotations are from a personal interview with Dolores, Lou, and Al Achilles, conducted by Melanie Harmon on October 11, 2006.

[4] “Eminent domain sets off controversy in Westville,” NBC Channel 10, September 20, 2005.

[5] Trish Graber, "Redevelopment: A Key Step Closer," Glouchester County Times, August 24, 2006.

Cities in a Mad Rush to Use Eminent Domain

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous decision in Kelo v. City of New London, 31 states passed bills reforming their eminent domain laws in order to better protect home and small business owners from the government’s wrecking ball.  But these same reforms have sent tax-hungry cities and land-hungry developers into a mad rush to squeeze in more projects before new laws take effect.

It’s unfortunate these covetous cities are acting so quickly to threaten or condemn, especially in those situations where the legislature recognized the serious problem of eminent domain abuse and worked to fix it.

Take a look at just a few examples:

  • Council Bluffs, Iowa: The City Council passed a resolution making a number of additional properties eligible for condemnation just days before the eminent domain reform bill—for which the Legislature returned in special session to override the Governor’s veto—was to take effect.[1]
  • Steelton, Penn.: The City filed eminent domain actions against several small businesses just one day before Pennsylvania’s comprehensive eminent domain reform law became official.  Unfortunately, the project can proceed despite the new rules.[2]
  • Hercules, Calif.: Worried about Prop. 90, a citizen-driven ballot measure that would change California’s eminent domain laws, the City Council made “technical adjustments” to their eminent domain authority within months of Election Day. [3]
  • Boynton Beach, Fla.: On May 10, 2006, exactly one night before the Governor was to sign new legislation banning the use of condemnation for private development, City officials passed a resolution that would allow them to bypass the new law.[4]  This gave the City Council free reign to condemn an entire neighborhood to make way for upscale redevelopment.
  • Riviera Beach, Fla.: Just like Boynton Beach, the City Council passed a resolution the night before the Governor was to sign H.B. 1567 into law. The City Council, doubling as the Community Redevelopment Agency, signed an agreement with the developer to go ahead with a project including condemnation of several hundred homes to make way for luxury development.[5]  The meeting was called at the last minute, not giving sufficient public notice for the residents to respond.

These are just a few examples of cities around the nation that have acted quickly to bypass new laws.  While citizens and legislators have worked hard to curb eminent domain abuse, cities are working equally hard to gobble up as many properties as they can.  Let’s hope the rule changes eventually mark a change in attitude as well.  The Castle Coalition will continue to keep that message alive.


[1] Elizabeth Ahlin, “Bluffs resolution extends use of eminent domain laws,” Omaha World-Herald, September 26, 2006.

[2] “Steelton to use eminent domain to further redevelopment,” Centre Daily Times, October 2, 2006.

[3] David Goll, “Prop. 90 would demolish economic development plans,” East Bay Business Times, September 25, 2006. 

[4] Erika Slife, “Boynton Beach Oks eminent domain use in face of state action,” South Florida Sun-Sentinel, May 6, 2006, at 1B.

[5] Alan Gomez, “Bush alleges Riviera violated law,” Palm Beach Post, June 1, 2006.

Legislation: Another Tool for Saving Property

Over the past year and a half, property owners across the country have learned of the many ways they can save what they own from the government’s wrecking ball.

Whether they have hung up posters, spoken to their local media, worked with the city council, brought lawsuits or attended a Castle Coalition conference, they know one thing is true:  they can save what is rightfully theirs if they fight for it and don’t give up (put link to success stories here).

As the first year since the Kelo decision has shown, citizens can add yet another strategy when they are working to protect hard-earned property:  legislation. Whether it’s a local city ordinance or an amendment to their state’s constitution, citizens and their representatives have realized that they have a very valuable tool at their disposal to create protection for everyone.

Several small business owners in Madison, Wis., are a prime example of this strategy, finding that if they stick to their guns and count on lawmakers to do the right thing, they just may be able to save their own property.

The property owners along Todd Drive in downtown Madison faced dire threats from the City Council to sell their businesses or face condemnation. The City, hoping to replace the row of “mom-and-pop” shops with faceless three-story office buildings, upscale retail stores and a hotel, didn’t hesitate to use eminent domain to force them out.[1]

“If the parties do not reach a voluntary resolution then we will likely condemn the buildings and the issue will probably be settled in courts,” said the chairman of the Community Development Authority, Stuart Levitan, in one of many letters to the property owners.[2]

The property owners remained steadfast and told City officials that they weren’t going anywhere,[3] but the City wanted that tax revenue from “upscale” businesses and was willing to do anything to get it.

Understandably frightened after several of these intimidating threat letters hit their mailboxes,[4] three of the business owners gave in. Midwest Billiards, the Grand China Restaurant and the Ripple Apartment Building all sold not through private negotiation, as most real estate transactions occur, but through government force.[5]

However, three other businesses would not give in to the land-hungry developers and greedy City Council. Luckily for the Open Pantry Convenience Store, the Bridge Club and the Selective Video Store, they held on tightly to their properties just in time for the Wisconsin legislature to pass A.B. 657.[6]  With the help of their legislators, citizens all across the state are better protected from the abuse of eminent domain.

What did this mean for the Madison City Council and its development agenda?  It was stopped dead in its tracks.  The development company had to stop all contact with the remaining property owners, and was forced to complete the project with just the property it had acquired before the new law had been enacted.[7]  One side of Todd Drive will have the new development, while the other side will remain the way it always has been, just the way the property owners want it.

The same scenario often plays out in many other cities across the country, and it shows one very important thing:  No matter how impossible things may seem, there is always a a way to hang onto the property you’ve worked so hard to own.


[1] Scott Carney, “Business upset with plans to condemn; Todd Drive redevelopment,” Wisconsin State Journal, November 12, 2005.

[2] Scott Carney, “Businesses upset with plans to condemn; Todd Drive redevelopment,” Wisconsin State Journal, November 12, 2005.

[3] Aaron Nathans, “Todd Drive firms hold out for more,” The Capital Times, August 5, 2006.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Aaron Nathans, “Todd Drive firms hold out for more,” The Capital Times, August 5, 2006.

[6] Wisconsin State Legislature, Assembly Bill 657, http://www.legis.state.wi.us/2005/data/AB657hst.html.

[7] Mike Ivey, “Property rights bill hits home; Governor: law didn’t scuttle Landmark Gate,” The Capital Times, June 21, 2006.

Mix of Thriving Retailers Not Good Enough for Town Mayor

The State Road Shopping Center in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, is just like any other strip mall in America.  Lined with ubiquitous shopping choices such as Radio Shack, Firestone, Fashion Bug and even a bowling alley,[1] the Center has recently fallen victim to an arrogant mayor who thinks he could make better use of the space.

Located in the suburb just outside Akron, the State Road Shopping Center may be considered “old”[2] by some on the City Council but is still thriving for the business owners who maintain their livelihoods there.

Filled with small shops for needs for everything from electronics to clothing to car repairs, parents could run their errands while the kids blew a few hours at the Northgate Lanes.[3]

But not anymore.  Over the past few months, seriously threatened by Mayor Don Robart to sell or face condemnation for someone else’s private gain, some of the businesses simply became too afraid of losing value on their properties and have sold to the City.[4]

What does Mayor Robart want with the thriving strip mall?  He thinks it doesn’t look good enough for his vision of the City, and he’s not afraid to say so.

“I consider it to be virtually nothing and certainly not in keeping with my desire for that area and my vision for that area,” he said, just one month ago.[5]

His vision includes a grandiose version of retail:  an upscale grocery store, a movie theater and apartments[6] —which would undoubtedly increase the tax base, a motive typical of tax-hungry city officials.

Mayor Robart unabashedly claims that a higher level of retail will somehow better the area:  “The buying power in that area is extraordinarily good—if you put in the right mix.”[7]

Many of the tenants have held on to their hopes that they will get to save their properties. They’ve even been proactive in their approach, making their own improvements to the façade of the Shopping Center and making definitive plans for upgrades.[8]  But these plans are simply not good enough for Mayor Robart—nor are they for the City Council.

To get his way, the mayor has pushed his agenda one step farther.  Mayor Robart proposed a “general” definition of “blight” so that he may move forward with condemnation proceedings against the shopping center.[9]  Using bogus “blight” is a common tactic used when greedy city officials can see no other way in pushing their development agendas forward.

In the case of the State Road Shopping Center, the supposed “blight,” according to the mayor’s definition, is stipulated by the center’s vacancy rate.[10]  Never mind the fact that the mayor had already pushed most of the stores out himself under his very own threats.  “Blight” was originally meant to describe properties that posed serious threats to public safety or health—not low vacancy rates.  This change has led to overwhelming abuse in Ohio and around the country.

Hope certainly remains, but despite the many efforts of the remaining tenants, time is running short.

The State Road Shopping Center in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, epitomizes the eminent domain fight all across America.  A row of small retail stores that do nothing but serve their own community have fallen victim to greedy city officials.  It’s a lesson for everyone, because, after Kelo, any home or small business could be next.


[1] Cuyahoga Falls Home Page: Town History, www.cuyahogafallshistory.com.

[2] Betty Lin-Fisher, “Mayor threatens to take over plaza,” Akron Beacon Journal, September 26, 2006.

[3] Cuyahoga Falls Home Page: Town History, www.cuyahogafallshistory.com.           

[4] Ibid. 

[5] Betty Lin-Fisher, “Falls aims to force sale of State shopping area,” Akron Beacon Journal, October 11, 2006.

[6] Betty Lin-Fisher, “Mayor threatens to take over plaza,” Akron Beacon Journal, September 26, 2006.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Betty Lin-Fisher, “Falls aims to force sale of State shopping area,” Akron Beacon Journal, October 11, 2006.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Gina Mace, “Mayor backs plaza bill,” Akron Beacon Journal, November 28, 2006.

St. Louis Salvage Yard a Precious Gem

A salvage yard might not be the prettiest site in the world, but to Opal Henderson, it’s been her life for over 50 years. Sitting among rusting cars and old radiators, she sells sought after parts and other scrap materials on her property in St. Louis, Mo.

“It’s not fair that they can just come in and take my property,”

But the salvage yard is just that—her private property. The principle is the same no matter what something looks like. Property should not be taken for someone else’s private gain.

Opal has owned the salvage yard since she was in her twenties, and it has now become an appreciating investment that she had always hoped would one day be an inheritance for her two boys.[1] Until, of course, the City of St. Louis decided it had a better use for the land. Armed with ritzy development plans, a major development company hopes to turn Opal’s property, not far from the St. Louis Arch and the new Rams Edward Jones Dome, into the “Ice House,” complete with a high-rise hotel and a hip and trendy entertainment spot.[2]

“They wanted to move me to a location a few miles down the road where there was nothing,” said Opal, now 77. “And my question to them was, ‘Why can’t they just build on that spot and just leave me be?’”[3]

When Opal told the developers that her property was not for sale, they were quick to run to the City Council to discuss the eminent domain options.[4] As it turns out, they were able to turn to a two-year-old “blight” designation—which provides the power of eminent domain—the Board of Aldermen had placed on Opal’s property without her knowledge.[5]

Opal admitted that her business, which had been her livelihood over most of her lifetime, might not have been the best sight for the eyes.[6] But she stood by her principle that it was her private property and she could do with it as she pleased.

“It’s not fair that they can just come in and take my property,” she said.[7]

The Salvage Yard is much more than a place for cars to live out their last days and customers to obtain scrap parts. Opal is known for donating areas of her lot to the local fire department to test extraction equipment, and she has even been known to spend a night or two on the lot, defending her own property from thieves.[8]

Perhaps Opal should have stayed there a few extra nights to defend her property from the latest round of thieves: the greedy City Council of St. Louis.

As is the case with many tax-hungry city councils, the City of St. Louis is not sympathetic to the fact that they are infringing on Opal’s private property rights—which are the foundation of all our rights.

“[The Salvage Yard] sends a negative message: that the City is subpar,” said Alderman Phyllis Young.[9]

Opal did not take to the threats lightly. She and her sister, Sue Haley, started making phone calls to their Congressmen and got a few local newspaper stories. Opal hired an attorney to see if there was anything she could do about fighting the efforts to kick her off her own property. .[10]

“But we found out that it was just too late,” Sue said, as she sadly told the story.

As Opal pressed on through 2006, she found that the City had simply moved too fast and too quietly for her to keep up with their plans for her own property. Despite having hired a lawyer and continuing the fight, she has found that unfortunately, the land-hungry developers and greedy city officials were just too over-powering.

“She’s just devastated,” said her sister, Sue Haley. “She really doesn’t want to move, especially at her age.[11]

“If we had just acted a little bit earlier, maybe we could have done something, but it’s just too late,” Sue continued.

Though a tragic ending for Opal and her precious salvage yard, this story is one that should inspire all those faced with threats: act quickly and take every threat seriously. When it comes to land-hungry developers and greedy politicians, it may seem like nothing can stop them. Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, so it’s important to watch every move local officials make.


[1] Telephone interview with Sue Haley, conducted by Melanie Harmon, November 29, 2006.

[2] Jake Wagman, “Junkyard war wages: Her land or theirs?” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 29, 2006.

[3] Telephone interview with Opal Henderson, conducted by Melanie Harmon, November 30, 2006.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Telephone interview with Sue Haley, conducted by Melanie Harmon, November 29, 2006.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Telephone interview with Opal Henderson, conducted by Melanie Harmon, November 30, 2006.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jake Wagman, “Junkyard war wages: Her land or theirs?” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 29, 2006.

[10] Telephone interview with Sue Haley, conducted by Melanie Harmon, November 29, 2006.

[11] Ibid.

Columbia University Wants to Sweep Away Local Businesses

Columbia University’s mission statement claims to “recognize the importance of its location in New York City and seeks to link its research and teaching to the vast resources of a great metropolis.”[1]  Apparently, those resources do not include Columbia’s own neighbors in West Harlem, as the private school seeks to push longtime owners from this increasingly desirable section of Manhattan.

Nicholas Sprayregen, owner of Tuck-It-Away Storage, knows the hypocrisy of Columbia all too well.[2]  He has felt the wrath full-throttle, and like many small business owners across America, he is willing to fight back.

   
 

“I am prepared to take this all the way to the Supreme Court if I have to,” said Nicholas Sprayregen.

   

Columbia University, a private university, has decided to expand its ever-growing campus in West Harlem, proposing an 18-acre development area that would include an art center, a biotech research center, student housing and a park.[3]

Sprayregen, a second-generation owner of the self-storage business that was started by his father in 1980, is the largest owner of the properties within the area slated for redevelopment and stands to lose it all if Columbia proceeds as planned.

“Columbia says it will help the community by putting in a new research center, but I already service the community,” said Sprayregen.  “There are over 2,500 West Harlem residents who do business with me here, and my properties include supermarkets, a hair salon and a parking garage, in addition to the storage units.”

If forced to move through eminent domain, Sprayregen fears that, like many small businesses, finding new clientele in a new and different place will put him back at square one.  As he points out, “storage clients don’t pick up and move with you.”

Columbia is acting like many private developers across America, unconcerned with the fact that these new buildings will push out countless residents and small business owners in the name of supposed “progress.”

Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia, has responded unequivocally to the opposition of the development by saying: “Everyone is pleased with the way we have dealt with [the neighborhood].  I would be irresponsible as president of Columbia to give up eminent domain.” [4]

The president of Columbia thinks the only way to be a truly responsible leader of a prestigious, Ivy League university is to push people out of the property they rightfully own.  It’s an alarming message to send to the young minds of the school.

Luckily, the residents and business owners of West Harlem have their own leader in Nicholas Sprayregen.  He has joined together with some of his business neighbors and hired an attorney.  In addition, Sprayregen has led the fight in winning in the court of public opinion—an essential tool in winning any eminent domain battle.  He has written letters and op-eds to New York newspapers and has appeared countless times on television and the radio.

His message?  His property, and that of the neighbors who join him, is not for sale under the government’s threat of eminent domain.  Still, he says, dealing with Columbia is, “like looking at the horses in Central Park with the blinders on—all they know how to do is move forward—regardless of who is run over.”

Sprayregen reports that throughout the struggle to hang on to his property and businesses, Columbia has “lied to the community and has not been forthcoming.”  Specifically, direct and honest communication between the university and the property owners has all but stopped, leaving Sprayregen and his allies dependent upon expensive and time-consuming Freedom of Information Law requests as well as local news media, including Columbia’s own student newspaper, The Spectator.

Although no formal condemnation has yet been filed against the remaining properties, the very threat of eminent domain, used by the university’s own president,[5] is enough for Sprayregen and his neighbors to continue their fight, steadfast as ever.  Even his teenage daughter, Emily, has joined her dad as a proud member of the family business—and says she’s not going anywhere, either.

“I am prepared to take this all the way to the Supreme Court if I have to,” said Nicholas Sprayregen.

New Yorkers, like most Americans, take pride in the businesses that they own and all the hard work they have put into them to make them flourish and serve their communities.   Columbia, whose alumni include Alexander Hamilton and Teddy Roosevelt, was once a prime example of true American greatness.  Now, Columbia University is turning a blind eye to private property rights—the foundation of all our rights, which their alumni knew well.

Luckily for Sprayregen and the rest of the activists and owners in West Harlem, Columbia still has ample chance to do the right thing—something few developers will try but true leaders will do.


[1] Columbia University Website, About Section:   “Mission Statement.”  http://www.columbia.edu/about_columbia/mission.html

[2] Note:  All quotations from this article are from a personal interview with Nicholas Sprayregen, conducted by Melanie Harmon on January 5, 2007.

[3] Bob Roberts, “Open university:  Columbia plans to expand to West Harlem;  West Harlem wants to be part of the plan;  Is there a way for campus and community to share the same streets?”  City Limits, December 2004.

[4] Timothy Williams, “Land dispute pits Columbia vs. residents in West Harlem,” New York Times, November 20, 2006.  (emphasis added)

[5] Ibid.

The Castle Coalition Turns 5

"Most people would be shocked to discover that governments across the nation are taking individuals' homes only to transfer that property to a favored business or neighbor, or that businesses are often being condemned so that another business can take their property and make a larger profit."[1]

So wrote Institute for Justice Attorney Dana Berliner five years ago at the founding of the Castle Coalition.  The shock remains, but much progress in the fight against eminent domain abuse has been made since.

This month, the Castle Coalition celebrates five years of helping ordinary people protect their land from overreaching local governments now emboldened by the Supreme Court’s infamous decision in Kelo v. City of New London.

The Castle Coalition grew of out of the Institute for Justice’s work in courts of law and in the court of public opinion defending property rights. Institute for Justice President Chip Mellor along with IJ staffers Dana Berliner, Scott Bullock, John Kramer, Bert Gall among others launched the Castle Coalition in 2002 after realizing that home and small business owners needed more than just legal help to combat eminent domain abuse.

“We kept encountering people who were months, even years, from litigation,” explained Bullock. “People were starting to hear ‘blight’ mentioned, and towns were starting to talk about taking property. We saw the need to have people who were dedicated to the fight and have the means, know-how and wherewithal to fight.”

IJ recognized past cases in which a well-organized, media-savvy group of citizens were able stop cities from taking private property for private gain before the situation reached the courts.

For example, under threat from the mayor of Pittsburgh, business owners in the Fifth & Forbes district held rallies, distributed fliers, spoke at every public forum they could, and, with help from IJ, launched a billboard campaign to stop the city from taking their businesses for a revitalization plan.

Likewise, a group of citizens in New Rochelle, N.Y., came together to protest the proposed building of an Ikea that would have required the demolition of an entire working-class community.  After several protests, including one at the Swedish consulate in New York, Ikea dropped its plans.

Using Pittsburgh and New Rochelle as models, Bullock, Berliner and Kramer developed a workshop-like conference in which they could hold training sessions for property owners under the threat of eminent domain and teach them strategies for grassroots activism, dealing with the media, and preparing for litigation.   These same strategies have proven themselves successful over the past five years with successes in big cities like Chicago, suburbs like Sunset Hills, Mo., and small towns like Coatesville, Pa.

The Castle Coalition became even more important and vital after the Kelo decision in 2005.  Since the decision left it up to the states to reform eminent domain laws, the Castle Coalition increased its focus on legislation at the state-level to ensure legislators provided the most comprehensive protections for property owners. Since Kelo, 34 states have passed reforms.

With thousands of members, the Castle Coalition looks forward to growing even more in the next five years, as well as continuing what has worked so well over the past five years. All told the Castle Coalition has formally trained hundreds of activists and counseled many more, hosted nearly a dozen national and regional conferences and provided the best tools available to fight the abuse of eminent domain outside of the courtroom.

“We’ll continue to increase our offerings to activists and make sure they are well-equipped for their grassroots battle,” says Castle Coalition Director Steven Anderson. “The stakes are too high – we’ll always remain vigilant.”

To become a member of the Castle Coalition sign up at our website.


[1] Dana Berliner, Government Theft: The Top Ten Abuses of Eminent Domain 1998-2002 (Washington, DC: Institute for Justice, 2002) 12.

Uprooted; Burlington, Iowa forces Betty Hayes from her home of 51 years

Eminent domain abuse can happen anywhere to anyone, whether in a small town or big city, whether you are rich or poor, young or old.  Elderly residents in rural Burlington, Iowa, are the most recent example, having seen that their own city government plans to bring in the wrecking ball on their World War II-era homes—just so the city could make more money.

Betty Hayes has lived in The Manor neighborhood since she and her husband bought the house 51 years ago.  Her husband passed away four years ago and their six children all grew up there, but the family remains in the home just the same.

“I am proud to have hosted every single Thanksgiving dinner for as far back as I can remember,” said Mrs. Hayes.  “My husband would be proud to see that we all still make good use of the home he worked so hard to improve, to make a place we could call home and remember him always.”[1]

But evidently, the memories and hard work of the Hayes family home are of absolutely no importance to the tax-hungry City Council of Burlington.  The Council has seen an opportunity to enlarge its coffers and wants to bulldoze the areas occupied by the homes of long-standing residents.[2]  This type of abuse against those with few resources is exactly the kind forecast by Justice O’Connor in her famous dissent in Kelo v. City of New London:  the poor would be forced out to make way for the richer..

Despite the Council’s grandiose vision, Mrs. Hayes, along with several neighbors, pressed on—they told the City Council that their homes were not for sale.  They organized a community meeting and passed out flyers all over the neighborhood, alerting passersby to the terrible abuses occurring right in their own backyards.

Betty Hayes would not let her 78 years stop her.  She wrote several letters to the editor of The Burlington Hawk Eye[3] and attended every single Council and neighborhood meeting, and her children sometimes joined her.

Still, the City Council members ignored the fact that so many elderly residents would be forced to move from the homes they had known for so long, many without mortgages.  Realizing many would simply not sell out to the city, the area was designated as “blighted”—a backdoor, standardless tactic used to take property by eminent domain.[4]

City Council members attempted to cushion the blow by saying they would “relocate” the residents displaced by eminent domain proceedings.  Relocation plans included moving the residents to low-income apartments in a different section of town.  Showing a paternalistic view that is becoming all-too-common among government officials these days one council member said, “they will be better off there than they are now.”[5]

It is highly doubtful that Manor residents, many in their 80s, would feel better once moved into apartments—not houses—that reflect absolutely none of their personal history of the last several decades.

Betty Hayes put it best when she said, “The City of Burlington has promised that it will help me find a different place to live after they’ve kicked me out.  But that new place to live will not have memories of my husband all around, and it will not be the place that has hosted almost every family holiday since my children were babies.”

Despite the efforts and major outcry over the bulldozing of The Manor, it was tragically not enough to save the neighborhood of homes.  The elderly people fought hard and until the very end to cling to their homes, but the overbearing and fast-moving City Council was simply too much for them:  January 2007 marked the beginning of the end of a bitter battle between the Burlington City Council and The Manor residents when the city voted to start the eminent domain procedure.  Almost a dozen of the remaining residents will be pushed out of their homes by eminent domain.[6] 

It is always a tragedy when people lose their homes or small businesses to eminent domain abuse.  Property rights are indeed the foundation of all our rights—no matter how young or old, rich or poor we may be.  Let the example of Burlington, Iowa be proof that no one’s home is safe from the government’s wrecking ball until eminent domain for private gain is a thing of the past.


[1] Note:  Quotations from Betty Hayes are from a personal phone interview conducted by Melanie Harmon, the Institute for Justice, January 3, 2007.

[2] Amy Barrileaux, “Burlington seniors may be forced from their homes,” WQAD Moline, Ill., November 9, 2006.

[3] Betty Hayes, “No to Manor plan,” Burlington Hawk Eye, September 26, 2006.

  Betty Hayes, “House hunting,” Burlington Hawk Eye, November 8, 2006.

  Betty Hayes, “Unanswered questions,” Burlington Hawk Eye, December 9, 2006.

 

[4] City of Burlington, Iowa:  City Council Meeting Minutes, September 25, 2006.  Courtesy of Manor resident Cecil Lowe.

[5] Ibid.

[6] James Quirk, Jr. “City proceeds with eminent domain plan,” Burlington Hawk Eye, February 7, 2007.