Grassroots Activists Beat City Hall

Bureaucrats try to take homes and businesses on behalf of private developers

By Dana Berliner

Government’s use of eminent domain to acquire private property for other private parties is a nationwide problem. We litigate to restore the constitutional requirement that property may be condemned only for “public use,” not for private business.

Creative and determined activism works. And the Castle Coalition will be here to help activists fight off attempts by bureaucrats to take homes and businesses on behalf of private developers.

When local governments decide to kick home and small business owners off their property and give the land to more politically favored private parties, many people bow to what they think is the inevitable. But increasingly across the nation, people who find themselves targeted by land-hungry cities and developers fight back. Politicians, accustomed to talking only about money, are often surprised by the depth of local opposition to condemnations for private parties. The lesson from across the country is that concerted and constant opposition, begun early enough, can scuttle city plans to turn citizens’ dream homes into chain stores and upscale condos.

The Castle Coalition’s website (www.castlecoalition.org) and its annual training session for eminent domain activists, both run by the Institute for Justice, help local activists organize effective campaigns to defeat eminent domain projects. After attending the first Castle Coalition conference in March 2002, Judy Peters led a successful campaign with IJ’s Arizona Chapter to defeat a blight designation in downtown Scottsdale, Arizona. The designation, in place since 1997, meant that Scottsdale could take any of the 906 properties for private development. With that sword hanging over their heads, owners were reluctant to develop and invest.

Ken Kinter used the Castle Coalition website as a resource to fight a potential condemnation in Allentown, N.J. The Town Council voted to do an appraisal of a piece of property owned by a local schoolteacher (appraisals are an early step in the eminent domain process) and sent the owner letters that both inquired about purchasing the property and warning that it could be condemned. The community mobilized, posting signs in yards, writing to the local newspaper, circulating petitions and packing town meetings. Within one month, the town backed down and abandoned its threats to condemn.

In Garden Grove, Calif., Manny Ballesteros also led the defeat of the City’s plans to condemn more than 470 homes, as well as 300 mobile homes and dozens of apartments, for a new theme park. Ballesteros and others began a massive information gathering and organizing campaign. Seven hundred people showed up for the City Council meeting that would decide whether to call in the bulldozers. After hours of testimony, the City capitulated and voted against the plan. Ballesteros will attend the Castle Coalition 2003 conference in March.

Activists in Placentia, Calif., convinced their City to renew a ban on using eminent domain for redevelopment projects. A great-grandmother in Eagan, Minn., invited City Council members, who had announced plans to condemn her house, over for tea; they voted against the condemnation.

Creative and determined activism works. And the Castle Coalition will be here to help activists fight off attempts by bureaucrats to take homes and businesses on behalf of private developers.

Dana Berliner is an IJ senior attorney.

 

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