Friday, August 11, 2006

Across the country, Americans fight to protect their property.

Will the Government Take Your Home?

From Parade Magazine

By Sean Flynn
Published: August 6, 2006

Joy and Carl Gamble bought an English stucco house in Norwood, Ohio, in 1969. They raised two children there and worked seven days a week in their small grocery store to pay off the mortgage. “ We had the house fixed up just the way we liked it,” Carl says. “When we retired, we planned to sit down and enjoy it.”

But now the Gambles live in their daughter’s basement. Their house stands vacant in the weedy field that was their neighborhood—seized by the city and transferred to a developer who wants to build shops, offices and condominiums.

In Long Branch, N.J., Denise Hoagland, 39, has an endless view of the Atlantic Ocean from the cottage she and her husband, Lee, bought 13 years ago. Their garden blooms with so many flowers that their three daughters call home “the place where the butterflies fly.” But Long Branch wants to take their home and about 35 other properties so a developer can build luxury condos. “It’s theft,” Denise says. “It’s legalized theft.”

Technically, it is a forced sale, because the government has to pay for the property. And it is legal: In June 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state and local governments can seize homes to make way for private development. The decision in Kelo v. City of New London triggered a sort of government land-grab.

In the one year since Kelo, more than 5,700 homes, businesses and even churches were threatened with seizure for private development, according to the nonprofit Institute for Justice (IJ), and at least 350 were condemned or authorized for condemnation. By comparison, about 10,000 were similarly threatened or taken over from 1998 through 2002.

Government always has had the power to force the sale of private property for public use—a process known as eminent domain. But what is “public use”?

Historically, it meant highways, railroads, schools and sweeping urban-renewal projects, such as the redevelopment of the Baltimore waterfront. But Kelo made clear that middle-class homes could be replaced with malls, offices, luxury homes—anything that might increase tax revenue.

“It’s a blatant example of reverse Robin Hood—taking homes from the poor and the middle-income and giving them to the rich,” says Scott Bullock, the IJ attorney who argued (and lost) Kelo.

“The fact is, a shopping mall does usually produce more taxes than a house,” says IJ attorney Dana Berliner. “An office building does produce more taxes than a church. But if that’s the rule—that anyone’s home can be taken away from them because something else will produce more taxes—then no one’s home is safe.”

But Kelo also has sparked a backlash. In the past year, more than two dozen states introduced or passed legislation and constitutional amendments to stop what critics call “eminent domain abuse.” Even the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill aimed to restrict eminent domain. Residents also are fighting back through courts of law and public opinion.

In Norwood, the Gambles and two other property owners represented by IJ brought their case to the Ohio Supreme Court. (At press time, the court had yet to rule.) [See editor’s note below.] In Long Branch, two dozen residents, also working with IJ, are suing to stop their neighborhood from being replaced with 185 condominiums. And in Lakewood, Ohio, my hometown, the people of Scenic Park waged such a successful public campaign three years ago that voters spared their homes from being taken.

In each city, the process unfolded almost identically: A private developer, with the government’s backing, wanted a big piece of property—cliff-side homes with valley views in Lakewood, ocean-front cottages in Long Branch—and tried to negotiate deals with each owner. When some refused to sell, the cities threatened to invoke eminent domain to clear the holdouts.

In order to do that, however, city officials first needed to declare the neighborhoods “blighted.” But the legal designation of “blight” bears little resemblance to a commonsense definition. In Lakewood, for example, Scenic Park is a charming neighborhood of older, well-kept homes. But because they lack such modern touches as attached two-car garages and central air-conditioning, the city deemed them blighted—a standard by which more than 80 percent of Lakewood, even the former mayor’s home, would likewise be blighted.

“We always bit on the word ‘blight,’” says Julie Wiltse, 63, who helped neighbors distribute 20,000 fliers and sponsor a series of blight events: a Blighted Block Party, a Blighted Chili Cook-off, even a Blighted Groundhog Day (which predicted four more months of blight). TV cameras and newspaper reporters loved that stuff.

“We were very successful in explaining to the community, ‘If we’re blighted, you’re blighted,’” Wiltse says.

Likewise, the Hoaglands’ neighborhood in Long Branch isn’t “blighted” in any meaningful way. With one or two exceptions, it’s a few blocks of low-key bungalows where families have lived side-by-side for decades, even generations. The shabbiest touches, ironically, are the posters in nearly every home’s windows with the words “eminent domain abuse” inside a red-slashed circle and the several homes that have been bought by the developer and boarded up. What the area doesn’t have, however, are the $500,000 condos or the restaurants with $12 hamburgers that were built immediately south of the neighborhood.

“When they want to revitalize,” says William Giordano, 41, whose great-grandfather built his house, “suddenly we’re not good enough to live here.”

The city has put prices on the houses it wants to take: $400,000 for the Hoaglands’ house, $374,000 for Lori Ann Vendetti’s, $410,000 for the home her parents built across the street and $325,000 for Anna DeFaria’s tiny gray cottage. Those might sound like hefty sums, but not on the Jersey shore. “ I can’t get anything in Long Branch for three and a quarter,” DeFaria says, “let alone an ocean view.”

But what’s money? “The memories are here,” says Lori Ann Vendetti. “They can come in with a million dollars, two million—we won’t take it. A lot of people think we’re bluffing, that everyone has a price. The Vendettis don’t have a price.”

Neither do the Gambles. Most of the properties that the Gambles and their Norwood neighbors owned—6 9 out of 75—were sold to the developer, who was required by the city to pay at least 25 percent above market value. Three others later settled with the developer. Then the city used eminent domain to claim the last three, concluding that the neighborhood was deteriorating, based on a study that was paid for by the developer.

Tim Burke, a lawyer for the city, argues that the government had to clear the holdouts, especially because there were so many other property owners who had agreed to sell. “Would Norwood have used eminent domain if it had to acquire 69 of the properties? Clearly not,” he says.

As Burke explains it, Norwood is an old industrial town that lost its industry and a third of its population. The city needs to redevelop to generate new revenues, and clearly most of the Gambles’ neighbors weren’t opposed. “When you’re a community like Norwood, you’ve got to be concerned with the entire citizenry,” Burke says. “And, yeah, there are going to be instances where, in order to better the lives of the many, the property of the few will have to be taken.”

But what if you’re one of those few? “That this is happening here,” says Joy Gamble, “in the land ‘ of the people, for the people, by the people…’” The thought trails off, and she just shakes her head.

What You Can Do

Stay informed: Eminent domain projects usually are years in the making—but quietly and without public reference to “eminent domain.” Watch for words like “redevelopment,” says Scott Bullock, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice.

Make noise: March, rally, call local newspapers and TV stations. Try to turn community opinion to your side.

Ask for help: Several organizations may take your case for free. But even if you have to hire your own lawyer, you can fight City Hall.

Pester your state legislators now: Some states already have passed new rules that restrict eminent domain.

Fight for the best deal: If you simply cannot save your home, make it as expensive as possible. An analysis by The Cincinnati Enquirer revealed that owners in Norwood, Ohio, were paid on average twice the appraised value of their homes. However, the ones who fought got even more.

Editor’s Note

On July 26, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the city of Norwood can't use eminent domain to take Carl and Joy Gamble’s home solely for economic development. The United States Supreme Court had ruled previously that there is nothing unconstitutional about a government taking private property, with just compensation, solely for economic development but left it to state courts to decide whether such takings violated their own state constitutions. The Ohio Supreme Court further rejected Norwood’s claim that it also could use eminent domain to eliminate the Gambles’ neighborhood because it was a “deteriorating area.” The court ruled that the phrase “deteriorating area” was too vague—that it was, in effect, a standardless standard. The court ruling means the development group has to return the house to the Gambles. “Our state supreme court did what the the U.S. Supreme Court did not do: It protected our home,” Joy Gamble told reporters.

George Eliot


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