Grand Terrace. O, Terrace, my Terrace a small town with heart; so lovely, so lively, a city apart. With people who love you, who make up your core, And leaders who guide you, protect you, and more.
Sadly, as Grand Terrace, Calif., homeowner Jo Stringfield recently discovered, the City’s traditional poem is only half true.
Jo Stringfield has fought against all odds to keep the childhood castle she loves from City Manager Tom Schwab and Assistant City Manager Steve Berry. These two threatened to take Stringfield’s home by eminent domain—using a blight designation dating back to 1979 that declares every home, business and place of worship within city limits as “blighted.” Never mind the more than 25 years of progress since then. Under California law, municipalities can condemn private property for private use as long as the property has been designated as “blighted” under the state’s broad and sweeping blight language, statutes that leave perfectly fine properties such as Stringfield’s up for grabs. Indeed, Grand Terrace’s permissible use of an ancient blight study underscores just how little protection the law actually provides.
Stringfield’s modest residence on two acres is not just any house. It’s her childhood home, nestled in one of Southern California’s charming bedroom communities near San Bernardino. It’s a place she spent her spare time as a child riding horses in nearby Blue Mountain. If nothing else, it’s certainly not what people would describe as “blighted.”
Grand Terrace is known to many as the Blue Mountain City, celebrated for its peaceful atmosphere, beautiful neighborhoods, high performing schools, safe streets and surrounding mountain scenery. But, apparently, that is just not enough for city officials, politicians so hungry for taxes that they were willing to go to extreme measures to facilitate private development. So City officials joined together with a private developer to build Town Center, a proposed shopping complex anchored by a Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse and a Stater Bros. Supermarket. Only the City did not own the property. Homeowners like Jo Stringfield did.
With the threat of eminent domain, the City acquired nearly 20 acres of private property. But a committed activist refused to bow to the government’s abusive threats of eminent domain. Stringfield stuck it out, firmly stating, “The bottom line is that I own the property.”
In 2004, Stringfield received a letter from a real estate agent asking her to sell her home, which, following her mother’s death in 2002, she had recently moved back into with her boyfriend Matt Fleming. She was not interested in selling; it is a home she loves and adores, so she threw out the letter. That year, she received many more letters, and when she received one from a developer, she got nervous and filed the letter away. Developer Jacobsen Family Holdings LLC, along with City officials, began to make extravagant offers, but she continued to inform them of her decision not to sell.
“What they want to do is put up a shopping center on my property,” Stringfield said. “At that point, I realized I needed an attorney.”
With eminent domain looming in the background, Stringfield was galvanized to action. She started to research the issue on the Internet, consulted with a local attorney and investigated her rights as a homeowner. She is an activist by necessity, not by choice—a woman who merely wants to save her home from the government’s wrecking ball.
With the support of the Castle Coalition, she began a grassroots battle. She circulated petitions and hosted rallies with “Hands Off My Home” and “Hands Off My Business” signs. She even went so far as submitting her own redevelopment plan, in which she proposed more of what the community wanted—smaller businesses, room for trees and parking, lighter offices with lofts and, most importantly, no eminent domain for private use.
In response to her grassroots activism and increasing public outcry against eminent domain abuse, Lowe’s pulled out of the project and, in April 2006, the City council tabled its proposed abuse of eminent domain.
It appears Jo Stringfield has successfully saved her home from eminent domain abuse, though Californians still need meaningful protection against eminent domain for private profit. Since the U.S. Supreme Court decided Kelo v. City of New London last year, legislators in 47 states introduced, considered or passed legislation aiming to limit eminent domain. More than 20 governors signed reform into law, but the California Legislature has still failed to pass eminent domain reform.
Fortunately, activists throughout the Golden State share Jo Stringfield’s commitment to property rights.
Emphasizing that she is not planning to wave a white flag anytime soon, she said, “It’s not right to take somebody’s home and give it to someone else for them to make money off of it.”