Elections & Eminent Domain Abuse: A Losing Issue For Local Officials To Support (Part 1)

In addition to public awareness campaigns, lawsuits and referenda, local elections have become a key front in the fight against eminent domain abuse. Across the country, local officials are learning that abusive exercises of eminent domain have the potential to enrage and inspire voters in a way few other local issues can. In recent years, unseating pro-eminent domain abuse politicians from office has become an effective tactic for protecting threatened properties. 

In the following, citizens used their voting rights to protect what they have worked so hard to own. Voted out pro-eminent domain abuse incumbents are often shocked when the “single issue” of eminent domain costs them their jobs. However, as American voters continue to see respect for property rights as a key factor in choosing their leaders, elected officials need to realize that eminent domain is a “single issue” of which they better take notice.

In this three-part series, we will look at some recent examples of local officials being voted out of office for their pro-eminent domain abuse stances.

North Arlington, New Jersey

In 2006, North Arlington citizens overwhelmingly voted for anti-eminent domain abuse candidates in response to an unpopular redevelopment plan. The plan, which would have resulted in 1,625 new residential units and 50,000 square feet of retail space, would have required the demolition of several warehouses and industrial businesses against the wishes of their owners. Many people saw the deal as questionable, as the city would have been required to spend a large portion of the tax revenue generated by the development on public services associated with it.[1]

In May 2006, the Porete Avenue Property Association, a group of affected property owners, filed a lawsuit seeking to void the agreement between Mayor Russell Pittman and developers. At the time Mayor Pittman said, “This is America. Anybody can sue anybody. I’m confident that the borough will prevail.”[2]

Luckily for owners of threatened properties in North Arlington, Americans are not only allowed to vindicate their rights in court, they are also allowed to vote out anybody who completely ignores what they want. In his party’s 2006 primary, Mayor Pittman lost to Peter Massa 793 votes to 583 votes. The party also nominated Massa’s two anti-eminent domain abuse running mates, Al Granell and Sal DiBlasi, whose business was among those under threat.[3] All three candidates were later elected to the borough council.

Citing the developers’ inability to finance the project without any risk to the borough, now-Mayor Massa terminated the redevelopment contract in April 2007. The developers may sue for damages, but damages are likely all they will get. The new mayor is committed to development everyone can support.[4]

Sunset Hills, Missouri

In 2004, the Board of Alderman in Sunset Hills voted to demolish a 65-acre neighborhood in order to make room for an upscale shopping mall. Owners of the 254 homes in Sunset Manor were outraged, but they felt that there was nothing they could do to keep their homes. The Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo only compounded Sunset Manor residents’ feelings of powerlessness. Many residents had been hopeful that the Court would protect their rights by declaring eminent domain for private use unconstitutional, but unfortunately it did not. 

Between the announcement of the developer’s plans and the point at which the deal fell apart, 229 owners agreed to sell. About twenty-five homeowners refused to sell, even though they knew that condemnation was the likely result of rejecting the developer’s terms. 

As well as being unjust, the plan has been a complete failure. First, the bank financing the project pulled out due to widespread outrage over the Kelo decision. This left residents who had already agreed to sell in a terrible position. Many were stuck paying two mortgages at once, and some had already gutted their homes.[5]

In April 2006, residents signaled their outrage over the project’s failure by voting out half of the town’s elected officials. John Hunzeker defeated Mayor Jim Hobbs, while Franklin Hardy, Thomas Hrastich, Lynn Flowers, and Frank Gregory replaced four pro-project members on the Board of Aldermen.[6] 

Sunset Manor appears safe for now, but the future of the neighborhood is still up in the air. It will cost millions of dollars to restore Sunset Manor to the condition it was in before the redevelopment debacle. Still, residents should feel much safer rebuilding and improving their properties now that most of Sunset Hills’ pro-eminent domain politicians are gone.

[1] Joseph Ax, “Development issue stirs rancor, division; Critics say it’s too late for town to scuttle deal,” Herald News, October 30, 2006.

[2] Peter J. Sampson, “A bid to halt Arlington Valley,” The Record, May 31, 2006.

[3]Massa Defeats Pitman,” NAtoday.net.  

[4] Alexis Tarrazi, “NA terminates agreement with EnCap,” The Leader, April 4, 2007.

[5] T.R. Reid, “Missouri Condemnation No Longer So Imminent,” The Washington Post, September 6, 2005.

[6] Clay Barbour, “Some see a new dawn in Sunset Hills,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 6, 2006.