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.