You can make a difference. Learn from citizens nationwide who staged effective grassroots battles to save their homes and small businesses from the government’s wrecking ball. These determined activists fought against eminent domain abuse brought on by tax-hungry city officials and greedy developers—and they won.
Ordinary citizens have triumphed against seemingly insurmountable odds by forming grassroots coalitions, pursuing aggressive media campaigns, remaining politically active and bringing their struggles to the court of public opinion—all strategies outlined in the Castle Coalition’s Survival Guide.
As these success stories indicate, momentum against eminent domain abuse has spread like fire across America—and it’s only getting bigger.
On March 9, 2004, voters in Mesa, Ariz., overwhelmingly approved an initiative to require the city to retain ownership of property taken by eminent domain for ten years before selling to private owners. Link to Arizona Republic Article
Three years after being named “Most Livable City” by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Scottsdale declared its downtown blighted—only because the blight finding was required by state law to designate several “redevelopment areas.” Members of the Castle Coalition responded by marching toward City Hall to rally against eminent domain abuse.
The blight designation became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Business owners feared investing in improvements to their properties, entrepreneurs hesitated to sign long-term leases, and some developers even purchased property, left it vacant, and used those conditions to justify their proposed takings. The Institute for Justice spearheaded a Citizens’ Petition and activists trained at the Castle Coalition Conference launched an aggressive media campaign—ultimately prevailing by removing the blight designation and watching $2 billion of investment pour into town.
Earl Eisley’s mother started what is now Eisley Nursery during the Great Depression as a way to make extra money. 75 years later, the business continues after facing down a new hardship: eminent domain. In May 2007, the city of Auburn expanded its original redevelopment area, approved in 1987, by 480 acres, including the Eisley Nursery. The Nursery was one of dozens of businesses deemed blighted by the City. Inspired by the Survival Guide, the Eisleys fought city hall and won. They communicated with local officials, gained the support of the community—demonstrated by the 2500 signatures they got for a protest letter—and made enough noise that the city council voted unanimously in July 2007 to remove eminent domain from the redevelopment plan.
After city officials rushed to push through a new redevelopment plan before Californians could vote on the two 2008 eminent domain reform ballot measures, residents and small business owners came together to form the Community Alliance for Redevelopment Accountability (CARA). Holding rallies and making their voices heard in the media, members of CARA opposed the threat of eminent domain, the lack of resident involvement in the decision-making process and the overwhelming size of the 109-acre project area, which officials sought to remake into an “urban village.” The city had been negotiating a contract with Bisno Development Co. since 2006, but the developer pulled out of the plan in November 2008 after failing to get financing for the project. Members of CARA hope the city will work with citizens to develop a new strategy to redevelop the area.
In October 2003 the Gardena City Council unanimously approved a redevelopment agency. This prompted citizens to start a petition drive called No GRAB (No Gardena Redevelopment Agency Boondoggle). In only 30 days, No GRAB was able to collect and deliver thousands of signatures, forcing the vote and allowing citizens to decide the issue for themselves. Armed with knowledge of their local laws, No GRAB continued to mobilize the community by meeting and campaigning in the weeks leading up to the vote, with strategies advocated by the Castle Coalition. Voters responded to this action in November 2004 by passing the measure, which disallowed the use of eminent domain in redevelopment. This was the City’s third failed attempt to create a redevelopment agency and No GRAB’s efforts serve to inspire activists throughout the country.
Bob Blue, a second-generation owner of Bernard’s Luggage Building on Hollywood and Vine, just wouldn’t take “eminent domain” for an answer. He was very proactive and creative with his fight against the City, using billboards and media interviews to make people aware of the abuse occurring in the historic section one of America’s most well-known cities. Bob also attended the Castle Coalition’s regional eminent domain conference in Newport Beach, Calif., and stayed persistent so he could keep his building. His efforts paid off: In September 2006, the City and developer backed off, and they will simply build around his building. Castlewatch article
Voters narrowly approved Measure M, an ordinance supporting the City Council’s efforts to redevelop downtown and a marina in 2004. But a sizable and vocal minority didn’t sit back and take it for long. In response, they forced a binding vote on redevelopment-council members and sought their own legal advice. Finally, in January 2007, the Martinez City Council voted unanimously to rescind the 2004 redevelopment ordinance.
In September 2007, with a 1,200-acre redevelopment area designated established in 1989, the city of Moorpark planned on voting to reestablish the Redevelopment Agency’s eminent domain authority–which had expired in 2001. Citizens had organized to oppose the use of eminent domain the year before, with some attending the 2006 Castle Coalitoin National Conference. On September 19, 2007 more than 350 people sat in silent opposition to the amendment that would have reinistated eminent domain and dozens of Moorpark residents, some from the redevelopment area and some from without, spoke against eminent domain during a three hour public comment period. At the end of the meeting, the council voted unanimously against establishing the agency’s eminent domain authority.
Overcoming an alliance between City Hall and a multi-millionaire developer, one landowner prevailed in his fight to save his property from the government’s wrecking ball. Daniel Ilko, who owns an 11,500-square-food property on the corner of 12th Street and National City Boulevard, used grassroots activism to defeat the government’s plans to take his property and give it to an Australian developer building high-end condos. By proposing a competing development project of his own, a strategy discussed in the Castle Coalition’s Survival Guide, Ilko cornered the city council into approving his redevelopment plan instead of condemning the property. With an April 2006 vote, city officials scrapped its eminent domain abuse—a victory for the Golden State landowner.
In 2005, Oakland officials wanted expand the city’s redevelopment areas to include new areas in North Oakland. Citizens let their local officials in Oakland know that they saw the potential for the abuse of redevelopment powers in the city’s plans. The public outcry was so great that city officials backed down.
The San Pablo City Council proposed in February 2010 the reauthorization of two newly expired redevelopment areas that covered approximately 95 percent of the city. Local property owners organized themselves together to form San Pablo Against Eminent Domain—a critical step in stopping the city’s plan. Together they organized huge rallies to protest the proposal, and relentlessly voiced their objections to eminent domain and the blighting of their properties at the public hearings. In response to the continued pressure form the grassroots group, the city council backed down from the proposal in May 2010, voting unanimously to ban the use of eminent domain in San Pablo.
In yet another victory for property rights, citizens in Englewood, Colorado successfully stopped the use of eminent domain for the redevelopment of Broadway, the city’s main commercial strip. With working-class businesses threatened to be removed for upscale shops and the belief that property rights are not negotiable, residents responded to Englewood’s plan: either take eminent domain off the table or we will extinguish the power for redevelopment by changing the City Charter ourselves. Faced with this choice, the city capitulated and chose not to redevelop using eminent domain.
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Private developer Louis Ceruzzi presented an extravagant redevelopment plan to the City of Derby in 2000. The plan called for existing businesses along the waterfront to be replaced by a ritzy condo tower, retail and office space, a cinema, and restaurants. The city aldermen not only authorized Ceruzzi’s plan, but also authorized the Derby Redevelopment Agency to use eminent domain to acquire those private businesses.
The businesses owners organized together against Ceruzzi’s plan to snatch away their property. After seven years of holding rallies and applying public pressure, the business owners were able to convince the city to throw out the redevelopment plan and fire Ceruzzi. The Redevelopment Agency’s chairman, Rick Dunne, left his post shortly thereafter.
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Princess Wells had lived in her pink house for 20 years when she found out the city had plans to snatch it away from her. On May 10, 2006, the night before Governor Jeb Bush signed legislation banning eminent domain for private development, the city entered into an agreement with a private developer to seize her home and the homes of 5,100 other residents through eminent domain. The developer envisioned luxury condos and a private yacht club to replace the 800 acres that were owned primarily by lower-income individuals. The city argued that the new legislation did not apply to their project since they had managed to seal the suspicious deal some hours before the new legislation was made law.
Once again, activism combined with litigation proved to be a successful combination. IJ’s Castle Coalition joined with Princess Wells and three other property owners, Michael and Nora Mahoney and Artis Reaves, to launch a public campaign against the city’s abuse of power that resulted in the mayor and other city officials losing their reelection bids. IJ attorneys represented the property owners in their lawsuit to enforce the new state legislation banning eminent domain for private development. The city knew they were on the losing side.
The property owners secured a victory in 2008 when the city announced it no longer had any legal basis for eminent domain and abandoned its redevelopment plans. Floridians can now be confident that their homes and businesses will not be taken away and handed over to a private developer.
The village of Arlington Heights wanted to replace the 14-acre International Plaza with a Target. Even though the city thought the plaza was ‘blighted’ because its U-shape did not provide enough visibility for businesses, several tenants sued the village to prevent their forced removal. By September 2006, neither Su-Chuan Hsu, the plaza’s owner, nor any of the other property owners in the surrounding 35-acre TIF zone had agreed to sell their property to the village. A month later, tenants of the plaza, with the help of the Castle Coalition, braved a foot of snow to protest the village’s plans. Finally, in May 2007, the village board voted to scrap the deal with Target, although officials say they would still like to see the plaza redeveloped.
Sometimes all it takes to save one’s business from the government’s wrecking ball is to investigate deeper and deeper into the details of the development project. At least that’s what Donald Zordani learned when Chicago city officials attempted to seize his Sportif bike shop to hand it over to a private developer who owned half the properties on the block and urged the City to give him more. After hiring an attorney, Zordani discovered facts that made City redevelopment officials cringe. For instance, the developer slated to benefit from eminent domain abuse had suspiciously donated thousands of dollars to an alderman who helped coax the project through the City’s bureaucracy. Not surprisingly, the City did not want any other details to surface and immediately backed off from the project—victory for a man who simply wanted to keep the bike shop he already rightfully owned.
Chicago (Lincoln Square)
The city of Chicago established the Western Avenue North TIF district. In Septmeber 2007, approved a resolution from the city’s planning department authorizing the acquisition of 16 businesses. Business owners from Chicago Soccer, Decorium Furniture and the Dental Corner came together to form Save Lincoln Square. During the group’s first community meeting, a rally broke out spontaneously and marched over to Ald. Gene Schulter’s offices. A couple of months later, the group protested at the City Council meeting to make sure that Ald. Schulter pulled his original ordinance and submitted a substitute ordinance that would take many of the properties off of the “involuntary acquisition list.” The substitute ordinance passed in January 2008.
The 876-acre Ogden-Pulaski TIF stretches across 876 acres of Chicago’s Lawndale neighboorhood, a poor, pre-dominantly elderly African-American community of the city’s west side. After city officials established the TIF district in February 2008, community members led by Valerie Leonard and Joe Ann Bradley moved to organize the Lawndale Alliance, with the help of the Castle Coalition, in order to help prevent the possible seizure of 41 properties. Before the meeting approving the TIF, the Lawndale alliance held a press conference denoucing the Communicty Development Commission’s plans. Due to pressure from the Lawndale Alliance, the city took all but the vacant properties in the area off of the plan’s “involuntary acquisition list.”
Village officials, eager to keep Ray Chevrolet and its sales tax in town, attempted to seize one acre of private property to turn it over to the car dealership for parking. But property owners Rita Shah and George Kurian, refusing to sell, turned to two courts: the court of law and the court of public opinion. They not only sued the Village, but they rallied the community for support. Lake County Judge Margaret Mullen said, “It is abundantly clear to this court, based upon all the evidence, that the taking was motivated solely by the Village’s desire to give incentive to Ray Chevrolet to remain in Fox Lake. Use of eminent domain for this purpose would exceed the Village’s authority.” The two-pronged attack spelled victory for Shah and Kurian.
In April 2000, the state legislature authorized the designation of a large area of Baltimore County—including 100 properties—as a redevelopment area. The County planned to replace the residents and businesses with wealthier homes and bigger retail establishments, against the will of the owners.
The home and businessowners created a community group and circulated petitions, staged rallies and conducted a citizen’s referendum against the proposed eminent domain abuse. They worked with two legislators, a radio personality, marched in a parade, passed out brochures and sponsored a plane to fly over the City’s stadium with a banner. The tireless efforts of the owners paid off when the referendum passed overwhelmingly, by a 70 -30 percent margin.
Legendary and close to the hearts of countless Bostonians, Fenway Park was shockingly under the threat of eminent domain in 1998 when some owners of the Boston Red Sox thought it would be better for the club to build a new stadium. Through effective organizing and advocacy as well as community planning and a focused media strategy, Save Fenway Park! and Fenway CDC were able to save 25 acres from the wrecking ball—-the owners of the Boston Red Sox announced that they would no longer seek to build a new stadium, but instead renovate the team’s current home. This success serves as positive example to other communities fighting stadiums in their own backyards.
The City of Brooklyn Park, Minn., sought to finance the destruction of apartments so they could make room for new development, thus displacing the countless immigrant and low-income residents. Not willing to give in to the desires of City Officials, Brooklyn Park residents fought back by forming their own organization, with their very own website and an ally in former legislator John Jordan. The efforts paid off, as the residents defeated the $35 million bond referendum on November 2, 2004.
The original plan would have allowed the City of Crystal to condemn 78 homes and five businesses for private residential and retail development. After the City floated plans to take the properties, targeted owners banded together to form the Crystal Heights Coalition. Using information and methods learned from the Castle Coalition website, the group rallied support from the community and convinced City Officials to back off and respect property rights. In January 2004, the Crystal City Council unanimously voted against proceeding with a redevelopment plan. This success stands as a model for how local activists can take matters into their own hands and fight back!
In 2003, business owner Irene Katoski found herself in the middle of a highly sought-after area of redevelopment—and the City wanted it badly. Once the city threatened to invoke eminent domain on her private property, Irene and her family used the Castle Coalition website for ideas on how to get their message out, including the use of talk radio, op-eds, billboards and rallies. Through perseverance and methods learned from the Eminent Domain Survival Guide, the Katoskis and their many local supporters were able to convince the Duluth City Council to reject a proposal that would have allowed the use of eminent domain.
Kevin and Valerie Holler contacted the Castle Coalition for help when they discovered that their property was on the county’s acquisition list for building a new library in northern Minneapolis. The Holler’s business and two rental properties, and therefore their livelihoods, were at stake. Although libraries are considered “public use,” the county was taking an unnecessary large amount of land.
With help from the Eminent Domain Abuse Survival Guide and IJ’s own Lee McGrath in Minnesota, the Hollers fought an uphill battle and won their fight to keep their property. The county acquiesced that the library could be built without taking the Holler’s property. Going one step further, the county even reversed their authority to use eminent domain for the project in the future.
The Minneapolis suburb of New Brighton, was one of the worst abusers of eminent domain in the state. The city began seizing land for its mixed-use redevelopment project called the Northwest Quadrant in the late 90s and continued doing so until the end of 2007. The New Brighton city council, however, passed an ordinance in June 2008, restricting the city’s ability to use eminent domain. The ordinance, passed unanimously, requires that three public hearings be held by the city council before the council can vote to authorize eminent domain. In addition, two-thirds of the city council have to approve that eminent domain is not being used primarily for economic development but for a public purpose. It would not have been possible had not reform advocates on the city council kept bringing up the need for reform. The Mayor, in fact, admitted that he thinks the reform goes too far but that he voted for it, just so the issue could be put to rest.
The Prior Lake, Minnesota City Council wanted to bulldoze 34 historical homes to make way for a road. While roads are generally considered “public use,” local bureaucrats had admitted that the purpose behind the road was actually economic development. The city government wanted to create more space for condominiums, apartments, and retail space near the downtown area of Lake Prior. Lake Prior homeowners, including Wes Mader and Andrea Mullenmeister, knew they had to band together as a community if they were to save their homes. Over the course of several months, they held neighborhood meetings, wrote their local newspapers, and packed every public meeting to voice their objections to the road project.
The public pressure culminated on October 7, 2011, when over 80 property owners held a “silent demonstration” in support of property rights outside of city hall. Later that evening, the city council voted unanimously against the road project, and these homes were saved.
After 300 citizens packed a July 2005 meeting at City Hall, officials backed off from their plan to seize twelve businesses and six homes by eminent domain—all for private development projects. More than 30 speakers spoke against the plans, one resident gathered 500 signatures to stop the condemnations, and hundreds of other residents announced their opposition to their respective elected officials. For now, the historic homes and businesses appear to be safe from the government’s wrecking ball. In August 2005, the Maplewood city council placed a freeze on eminent domain for private development, but some residents say that the ordinance allows for too many loopholes.
The City of Normandy wanted to condemn the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic Charity, and turn the 107-acre area into a $53 million retail, commercial and office development. The land slated for condemnation included a convent, a 34-room retirement home for elderly sisters and a transitional house for chemically dependent women.
The nuns retained a local attorney and organized 300 residents to show up in force to a meeting of the City’s TIF commission. The City halted its proposed eminent domain abuse before legal action was necessary.
Residents unwittingly voted for a redevelopment project involving eminent domain when they thought they were just voting to clean up a small section of a dilapidated trailer park area. Finding themselves in the thick of a giant redevelopment section that included middle class homes, which the City Council wanted to bulldoze for retail space, the residents fought back—including one brave City Council member. The Ozarkers followed the Castle Coalition’s Survival Guide, wrote many letters to the editor, op-eds and were in the media frequently, as well as holding many rallies and community events. They saved 10 homes from the government wrecking ball. Then, in April 2007, running on an ant-eminent domain platform, Don Watts, who gave up his seat as alderman, was elected Mayor. Since being elected, he has promised to make sure eminent domain is not enforced.
Raytown officials bought the First Baptist Church property after the congregation moved elsewhere, but instead of developing the property the city already owned, officials created a redevelopment plan that called for the removal for several downtown businesses. Pat Casady, owner of C & C Industrial Armature, armed with the Eminent Domain Abuse Survival Guide and the Missouri constitution, he brought his neighboring business owners together. The organized effort caused city officials to put the plan on hold, but they shifted focus to the city’s other development. Casady plans to share the grassroots tactics he learned from the Survival Guide with fellow Raytown property owners.
Grand Center, Inc., a non-profit run by a former St. Louis mayor, wanted the City to use its eminent domain power near St. Louis University to seize the site where “Gentle” Jim Day’s auto repair shop had been located for decades, and to hand it over to a private developer for a “media box” design studio and multimedia space. An outpouring of public support thwarted the efforts of Grand Center for three years, prompting a significant media blitz, rallies and protests, and a simultaneous legal challenge. Under fierce political pressure from the community, local papers and politicians, Grand Center finally decided to settle with Day in May 2005—a bittersweet victory for a man who fought simply to keep his own property and business.
St. Louis (Bohemian Hill)
The city of St. Louis wanted to replace the neighborhood of affordable homes with a shopping center and high-priced condos. In January 2007, residents were sent letters from the Land Clearance for Development Authority telling them officials wanted to acquire the properties for development plan, which was approved in 1999. It did not matter that individual property owners were already in the process of renovating and restoring several properties. After much grassroots pressure from a united community, the LCRA sent residents a letter in May telling them the agency had “decided to not move forward with the project”.
In a closed meeting, the City Council unanimously voted to condemn the Thomson family farm—a 350-acre dairy farm that has remained in the family for five generations. The City stood to make $1.7 million in additional tax revenue by turning the farm into an industrial park. Citizens protested the proposed condemnation with 1,750 phone calls to the City. The next City Council vote was also unanimous—but this time against eminent domain abuse.
In November 2006, after several petitions and two lawsuits organized by Stop the Sunset Hills Land Grab, the city of Sunset Hills had to drop its unpopular plan to replace 254 homes and 12 businesses with a shopping center and a hotel because the bank financing the developer withdrew its funding. The city acknowledged, too, that the plan had been illegitimate from the beginning. Unfortunately, it was a bittersweet victory for the homeowners who did not sell: they have been left with in neighborhood filled with abandoned homes that had been ransacked by people assuming they would be demolished.
In December 2004, the city of Lincoln and developer John Q. Hammons held a press conference announcing that a new hotel would take the place of a block occupied by several existing businesses, and eminent domain would be evoked if anyone did not want to sell their property. Utilizing the Castle Coalition website and its resources, activists, including Sean Wieting of Samurai Sam’s Teriyaki Grill, raised awareness in both print and broadcast media about this land grab. On March 1, 2005, bowing to the pressure brought on by Wieting and others, the City refused to authorize the use of eminent domain. The developer is still proceeding with his plan to build the hotel, and these Lincoln properties are now safe. Link to Journal Star article.
In May 2008, the Asbury Park City Council announced it would not use eminent domain its controversial Main Street Redevelopment Area. Earlier that month, Kerry Butch – a local activist and Associate Producer of the eminent domain-themed documentary Greetings from Asbury Park – organized property owners when she found out that the original version of the plan left open the possibility of using eminent domain. The group, Main Street Business Alliance, showed up at the next City Council meeting ready to make their voices heard when the city announced it would send the plan back to the Planning Board.
In 2007, Atlantic City officials told small business owners on 24 acres surrounding the former Sands Casino property that they were going to be designated as blighted so that Pinnacle Entertainment could build a new casino on a larger piece of land. The small business owners came together to form Save the Atlantic City Business District. SACBD held a rally where the mayor and two councilmembers spoke out against this abuse of eminent domain. In October 2008, just a few days after Quang Ha, who opened a jewelry store in Atlantic City after fleeing communist Vietnam, filed suit to overturn the blight designation, the city rescinded the blight designation. Five months later in March 2009, Pinnacle Entertainment abandoned its Atlantic City casino plans entirely.
Camden (Bergen Square)
In June 2003, the city of Camden’s Planning Board carried out a study to justify the need for revitalizing a 242-acre area in the predominantly African-American and Hispanic Bergen Square neighborhood. The city itself helped create much of the blight: of the 495 properties in the area the city owns, 391 were vacant. Despite a November 2004 meeting packed with residents from several neighborhoods protesting the city’s numerous revitalization plans, the city approved the Bergen Square plan in February 2005. Residents of the neighborhood filed suit the next month, and a year later a Superior Court judge ruled the city’s study invalid on a procedural technicality. The city of Camden appealed the ruling, but let the Bergen Square plan die in March 2007, handing over a victory for not only the 65 property owners who sued but also to the rest of the residents of Bergen Square.
Camden (Cramer Hill)
Camden city officials proposed a $1.2 billion redevelopment plan that threatened to displace more than 1,000 families in the Cramer Hill neighborhood. The project, spearheaded by Cherokee Investment Partners of Raleigh, N.C., would have kicked people out of their beloved homes to make way for luxury housing, commercial space and a golf course. Residents fought against the City’s abuse of eminent domain through the public and political processes: activists attended the Castle Coalition’s eminent domain conference in Newark, N.J., where they fine-tuned their grassroots campaign. Also, a legal challenge to the City’s condemnations led to a February 2006 ruling in favor of the homeowners.
East Greenwich Township
Bill and Linda Small bought 2.5 acres of property in 1999 and had grand visions of what they wanted to build. After years of bureaucracy obstructing their plans, they decided to open an amish furniture store on the site, with dreams of one day realizing their ultimate vision for the land. But all of their plans came to a halt late last year when the Township Committee of East Greenwich, N.J., declared their property “in need of redevelopment.”
Upon hearing of their situation, the Castle Coalition reached out to the Smalls in September 2010 to offer them grassroots assistance and train them how to fight eminent domain abuse.
When IJ sent a letter to the mayor and township council urging them to drop their plans and reject eminent domain abuse, the township realized they could not continue to bully the Smalls any more. On December 28, 2010, the council voted to change the designation of their property from “redevelopment” to “rehabilitation,” which is not accompanied by the power of eminent domain.
In September 2004, Planning Board officials commissioned a $30,000 study to determine whether 205 (mostly residential) lots should be designated as a redevelopment zone—rendering those homes and businesses susceptible to eminent domain abuse. The study supported the redevelopment designation, prompting worried residents to form the “Save Our Homes and Businesses LLC” and to hire an attorney to represent them at Planning Board meetings. This quick and concerted grassroots and legal response appears to have shaken the resolve of the Planning Board, which rejected the study and the entire redevelopment project by December 2005.
The Jersey City Redevelopment Agency sought to transfer the home and small business of a modest businessman to a Roman Catholic high school. The plan was to condemn a restaurant and bar called the Golden Cicada and the backroom apartment of its owner, Cheng Tan—all to extend a private high school’s football field by seven yards. After an intensive legal and political battle, the City finally backed down from this controversy that lingered over Tan’s head for months, a bittersweet victory at last.
On September 16, 2008, a more than five-year-long battle between the Neshimka family and the city of Linden came to end when the city council voted unanimously to remove the Linwood Inn from the city’s South Wood Avenue Redevelopment Area, where city planned to build a “transit village”. John and Lori Neshimka bought the 126-year-old Linwood Inn before their two children were born and spent more than $500,000 making improvements on the building. The building houses a restaurant, boarding house and apartments. Aside from the fact that the Linwood Inn was clearly not blighted, the Neshimkas argued that the property should be removed from the redevelopment area because city officials originally sent notice of the proposed redevelopment zone to the previous owner.
Five homeowners and 17 small business owners in a 17-acre area of Neptune City learned in July 2007 that they were in the middle of an “area in need of redevelopment” and that the city was prepared to take their properties via eminent domain for a redevelopment project “as a last resort”. Officials claimed that a drive through the area was enough to convince anyone it was blighted, but a New Jersey superior court judge disagreed. He threw out the city’s blight designation after one of the threatened businesses, Park Iron & Steel, filed suit. Since the area was no longer “blighted”, the city could no longer threaten property owners with eminent domain.
Closing the book on its controversial, $200 million redevelopment plan, the city of Ventnor finally backed off from its threats of eminent domain that have spanned seven years. Pulte Homes, the principal developer in the area, claims that rising real estate prices have made the plan no longer economically viable. However, the publicly traded company has also expressed reservations about the use of eminent domain on the grounds that it would destroy its corporate image in post-Kelo America. As the city heads back to the drawing boards without its primary developer, the homes and businesses in the proposed redevelopment area appear to be safe—victory at last for the property owners who staged an effective battle. In July 2008, city commissioners passed an ordinance banning eminent domain for private development.
Nearly three years after having a local realty firm send letters to 100 property owners threatening condemnation if they didn’t sell, Fieldstone Associates withdrew as the developer for a luxury condo and retail development project along Westville’s waterfront. Although most of the threatened properties were houses and rental properties, Grabbes Seafood, a third-generation family-owned restaurant, went to work to protest the threats of eminent domain. Owner Dolores Achilles and her son Al fought for years, learning strategies by attending Castle Coalition conferences. They also drew much attention to the attempted landgrab with their special eminent domain menu.
A private developer—The Pioneer Companies—wanted to build a new Hilton Garden Inn and a conference center in town, but the property he wanted for the hotel site was already owned and occupied by thriving businesses. The local property owners—Renee and Doug Ward and Michael Kazanivsky—told the developer and the city they were not willing to sell, and the community stood behind them. The Wards organized rallies and spoke to the media about the city’s threat to use eminent domain to seize and hand over their property to a wealthy private developer. In the end, the public pressure overwhelmed the Auburn Industrial Development Agency, who voted in May 2010 against the use of eminent domain for private gain.
Bowing to increasing pressure from local activists, New York’s historic town of Cheektowaga, a suburb of Buffalo, backed down in October 2005 from a controversial redevelopment plan that would have wiped out the entire neighborhood of Cedargrove heights—including 300 homes and 700 apartments—and replaced it with a wealthier residential and business neighborhood. Thanks in large part to a grassroots community group called the Cedargrove Heights Neighborhood Action Committee, the Town Board dropped consideration of the proposal. Wearing red shirts to every meeting, utilizing the Castle Coalition’s Survival Guide, and building on skills learned at the Castle Coalition’s Washington, D.C. eminent domain conference, the citizens group fought to save their beloved homes—and after “nine months of hell,” as one activist phrased it, they ultimately won.
The mayor planned to condemn an entire working-class community, demolish it, and transfer the property to Ikea for a new big-box store. A core of home and business owners formed a citizen’s group, worked with a legal services clinic at Pace University Law School, and gained support from nearby towns. With a tinge of creativity, the activists organized a drive-in to show the implications the store would have on traffic, demonstrated outside the Swedish consulate in New York, and protested the condemnation at every opportunity. Under intense public scrutiny, Ikea decided the project just wasn’t worth it, and the condemnation plans were abandoned.
In 2005, the Onondaga County Industrial Development Agency voted to use eminent domain to push many businesses out of the way to build “Destiny USA,” which would “attract more people, more often, and more profitably than anything ever built.” But the business and homeowners in the slated area took destiny into their own hands : they joined together to form the “Salina 29,” and began their activism by attending the 2005 Castle Coalition Conference in Washington, D.C. From there they learned all they needed to fight this abuse, from writing letters to the editor, op-eds, staging rallies and staying organized. They even formed their own website, www.salina29.com, and put up a large sign along a well-traveled highway. All of the hard work and persistence paid off, because in January 2007, OCIDA backed off, and made an amendment to “take out any reference of eminent domain.” Two months later the developer re-submitted his application requesting the use of only “publicly-owned lands.” In the end, Salina 29 has thwarted the force of Destiny.
In July 2003, two small business owners won a victory in their fight to stop the Evendale city council from passing a proposed urban renewal plan that would have allowed the city to condemn theirs and nearly 80 other small businesses for the benefit of private developers. Using advice and methods provided in the Castle Coalition’s Eminent Domain Abuse Survival Guide, Bruce Hassel and Dan Regenold convinced the Evendale Council to vote against blighting the affected properties.
In November 2003, voters sent a message to their local leaders by rejecting a referendum that, if approved, would have authorized the City to condemn dozens of homes, businesses and apartments in Lakewood’s West End for the benefit of a private developer. The Castle Coalition, working together with the residents of the West End and the Committee for Lakewood, helped to stage rallies and get out the vote on behalf of the property owners who had no desire to sell. Largely on the basis of the referendum campaign, Lakewood voters also voted out Mayor Madeline Cain, who had been one of the proposed development’s main advocates.
Marilyn Lopez and Erin Fauber, both local business owners in Lorain, were alarmed when the city labeled their businesses “blighted” in 2004 and included them in the Downtown Urban Renewal Plan. Although Marilyn had recently installed a new roof and awnings, the study still described her building as “dilapidated” and “abandoned.” Despite testimony from Marilyn and Erin, the Federal Programs Committee voted in favor of the study and sent it to the city council for final approval. The Castle Coalition reached out to these women and worked closely with them to fight the city’s plans. Three years of their tireless efforts and public pressure resulted in success! The blight label was overturned, and Marilyn and Erin were once again able to devote their full attention to running their businesses.
The specter of eminent domain began to haunt the Camino Villa mobile home community in January 2008 when the city declared the entire neighborhood of 400 people “blighted” and began talks with private developers regarding commercial redevelopment of the area. Residents knew this put their homes on the chopping block. To prove their beloved community was not “blighted,” home owners painted their fences, cleaned their yards, and made general improvements to their properties, even helping elderly neighbors and those without the financial means to make their own improvements. In addition, residents spoke publicly against eminent domain abuse at council meetings and hired an attorney to represent them. Their efforts paid off on August 3, 2010, when the City Council voted unanimously to remove the blight designation. Property owners rejoiced that the homes they had worked so hard to own were no longer under the cloud of condemnation.
Sometimes, even a small pocket of principled opposition can be enough to face down threats of eminent domain. In Roseburg, city council members promised 18 parcels of land in the Sweetbrier neighborhood to a private developer for the purpose of unspecified commercial development. Citing their sudden “discovery” that Sweetbrier was in fact zoned for business and not for residential, they instructed home and small business owners to vacate their properties or be faced with condemnation for economic development. Four property owners stood up to the threats of eminent domain abuse and refused to give in, and the city council ultimately backed down from those properties in January 2005—only after substantial public outcry and citizen opposition.
Despite a series of obstacles in getting the matter on the ballot, in a March 2002 special election, residents overwhelmingly defeated Measure 26-27, which would have established an urban renewal agency in this suburb of Portland. The city council passed two ordinances the year before: one casting itself as the agency and declaring blight, the other creating the renewal plan, which blanketed a portion of the city and called for tax increment financing. However, as a result of the hard work of local activists, the creation of the agency was referred to the voters, who emphatically destroyed it. Yet another successful example of what can happen when a community rallies to their cause.
Through the grassroots and political processes, a citizens group called the Save Ardmore Coalition (SAC) successfully defeated Lower Merion Township’s attempt to seize and bulldoze 10 thriving businesses in Ardmore’s charming historic district. When it comes to grassroots activism, the SAC did it all — rallies, protests, publicity campaigns and coordinated efforts to unseat local officials who supported eminent domain abuse. Its members testified before state and local bodies urging the reform of eminent domain laws, attended the Castle Coalition’s national and regional conferences, and worked with the media to bring attention to their battle. In March 2006, the Township took its condemnation threats off the table — no doubt in response to the public outcry generated by the SAC.
It took a year of nearly nonstop activism, but in November 2000, business owners finally defeated the planned condemnation of 64 residential buildings and 125 businesses in the heart of downtown. Pittsburgh’s mayor had planned to condemn the Fifth and Forbes area and transfer it to a Chicago developer to create a shopping mall.
Activists put up signs in storefronts, formed a citizen’s group and created a Community Development Corporation. They garnered support from the historical association and a policy think tank called the Allegheny Institute. They proposed alternative plans; spoke out at public meetings; worked with the media; and authored op-eds and letters to the editor. The Institute for Justice placed billboards around the city opposing the project, and in the end, Nordstrom, the anchor tenant, gave up and decided not to participate. Finally, the mayor took eminent domain off the table.
It cost Nancy and Dick Saha $300,000 of their retirement savings and six hard years, but they prevailed in their bout with the City of Coatesville. The couple bought their Pennsylvania farmhouse in 1971, making lifelong dreams of owning a small horse farm a reality. With their five children, the Sahas moved to Chester County and restored their charming 250-year-old residence. Truly a family farm, two of their daughters married and built their family homes on the land, giving Nancy and Dick the chance to see their five grandchildren grow up next door.
When Coatesville threatened to take their property by eminent domain to build a golf course—plans for which didn’t even include their farm in the first place—the Sahas remained fully committed to a grassroots battle. They submitted three petitions, protested at local meetings and took their fight to court. Ultimately, the city council backed off when the Sahas pushed to elect new representatives, agreeing to purchase five acres that the Sahas had offered to give the government for free at the beginning of the dispute.
For more information, visit saveourfarm.com.
Facing tough odds against a billionaire, NASCAR and the City, property owners were successful in stopping eminent domain abuse. The properties, close to one of stock car racing’s most popular tracks, Bristol Motor Speedway, were saved by a shrewd two-part attack. Activists used the media and a comprehensive website to deconstruct the plan and ultimately stop the Bristol land grab – the City officially backed down in January 2004.
San Antonio’s main attraction is its River Walk. So when the city wanted to expand the area northward, where dozens of businesses and hundreds of homes stand, property owners knew city officials wanted them to disappear. Although the city didn’t directly threaten eminent domain, it wouldn’t it take the option of the table and the developer’s artistic renderings showed the area without the current businesses there. To face down the future threat, the business owners learned from the Castle Coalition how to get organized and present an effective and united message to the city and local media. As a result, in May 2008, the city changed the language of its Master Plan to include that it is “not the intent of the plan” to use eminent domain for private use. While the change doesn’t prevent another change, it was clear to the business owners that the city’s attitude had changed profoundly because they had made their voices heard.
Fighting the world’s largest retailer is an unenviable task. But a core group of concerned citizens in Ogden, Utah, led by 76-year-old retiree Dorothy Littrell, did just that–and won. In an act of both legal significance and brash defiance, Dorothy even purchased a parcel of property in the middle of Wal-Mart’s proposed development, after the company’s plans were revealed. Together with filing a pro se lawsuit, the group staged rallies, using materials provided by the Castle Coalition, wrote letters to the editor and exerted a vast amount of political pressure through the media and state legislature. In early 2005, a little over a year after the big-box was announced, the group’s activism ultimately culminated in an eminent domain reform bill that was signed by the governor, effectively stopping the development and saving a neighborhood. This is yet another victory against seemingly insurmountable odds.
In April 2010, the Ogden City Council declared four blocks of downtown businesses “blighted,” and drew up plans to seize businesses that stood in the way of their planned “revitalization.” Business owners were terrified for their livelihoods. Rallying together, they demanded the council change the Ogden Redevelopment Plan to specifically include a prohibition against eminent domain abuse. Just a few months later, on August 25, 2010, the city council did just that, voting to respect the property rights of Ogden residents.
Gerard LaBrecque spent $30,000 rehabbing a duplex he had bought and planned to lease it out to low-income families. The city of Staunton granted LaBrecque the renovation permits but then decided it wanted the land as part of the Newtown revitalization project. After LaBrecque and a few other property owners threatened legal action, Staunton’s Planning Director recommended the city give up its pursuit of $1.4 million in federal grants for the project. In March 2007, the Assistant City Manager recommended the city work with LaBrecque and allowed him to move forward with his own renovation plans for the building.
Seattle (Rainier Valley)
In 2006 the City of Seattle sought to declare six neighborhoods, primarily home to African-Americans and Southeast Asians, as “blighted” and create a “community renewal area” for the purpose of “redevelopment.” The glitzy public relations campaign conducted by the city could not hide the ugly facts: the proposal threatened the homes and businesses of 24,000 residents and six neighborhoods. Their justification? The area had a higher percentage of crime and low-income residents than did other parts of Seattle.
With help from IJ’s Washington Chapter, the Castle Coalition trained dozens of threatened property owners to become activists, who then launched a campaign of their own aimed at fighting the blight proposal. City officials backed down amidst mounting public pressure, leaving Rainier Valley residents to live in peace.
The City of Greenville targeted successful businesses around Loomis Road and I-894 during the summer of 2010 for seizure by eminent domain because city officials wanted to “redevelop” the area “someday.” Following recommendations from IJ attorney Jason Adkins and the Castle Coalition’s Survival Guide, business owners rallied together to demand elected officials respect their property rights. The group staged rallies and spoke out at important council meetings to show their opposition to eminent domain abuse. They also reached out to the media, gaining valuable exposure that left city officials panicked. On August 19, 2010, the city voted unanimously to prohibit the use of eminent domain for private development.
In a victory for property rights in Wisconsin, Earl Giefer will be allowed to keep the farm that he rightfully owns. The Oak Creek City Council voted on June 1, 2010 to end the eminent domain proceedings they had begun on the property that had been in his family for 150 years. IJ’s Jason Adkins, an attorney at the Minnesota Chapter, reached out to the Giefer family upon hearing that the city planned to bulldoze his farm to make way for private development. Together with other concerned citizens, they held a rally against eminent domain abuse before the vote, telling the land-hungry bureaucrats that they stood behind Mr. Giefer. The subsequent explosion of media coverage placed an enormous amount of public pressure on local officials, prompting the politicians to wash their hands of what one of them called a “PR nightmare” for the city.