Policy Documents

End Eminent Domain Abuse

Dana Berliner and Scott Bullock –
May 1, 2002

Most people would be shocked to discover that governments across the nation are taking individual’s homes, only to transfer that property to a favored business or neighbor. Or that businesses are often being condemned, just so that another business can take the property and make a larger profit. Yet in the last few years, that’s exactly what’s been going on. Local governments in particular have taken private homes and businesses to replace them with other privately owned businesses, malls, industrial developments, and upscale housing.

  • In New London, Connecticut, a private organization has been given the government’s power to condemn more than a dozen properties, including the home of an 82-year-old grandmother, for construction of an office park and other development to complement a nearby Pfizer research facility.

  • Merriam, Kansas condemned one car dealership so that a higher-profit neighboring BMW dealership could expand.

  • And in Riviera Beach, Florida, the city is moving forward with plans to force out more than 5,000 residents for privately owned commercial and industrial development.

These are a few of the situations described in a report issued recently by the newly formed Castle Coalition, “Government Theft: The Top Ten Abuses of Eminent Domain, 1998-2002.” Selected from more than 100 such abuses around the country, the report describes 10 of the most egregious examples of government taking homes or businesses from their rightful owners to transfer the land to a more politically or financially powerful private party. Although both federal and state constitutions forbid takings for private use, government agencies at all levels ignore this prohibition.

Activism Can Help

Court battles to protect against such abuse are long, arduous, and often prohibitively expensive, particularly when the cost is borne by one or two property owners. As lawyers at a nonprofit organization, we cannot handle even a tenth of the abusive eminent domain cases that come to our attention. But local and national activism can dramatically change the landscape, scuttling attempts by government to help private parties steal property for pet projects.

Over the past several years, we have seen rising popular indignation and resistance against this abuse of eminent domain. Property owners and activists have become increasingly vocal and increasingly successful in their opposition. Home and business owners in New Rochelle, New York defeated a plan to replace their neighborhood with a new IKEA store. An organized community in Baltimore County allowed citizens to vote on a referendum that overturned a plan to condemn a large area for commercial and industrial development.

The opponents of eminent domain abuse have experimented with an enormous range of strategies. They’ve circulated petitions, sponsored successful voter referenda, picketed the Swedish consulate, erected billboards, talked to their neighbors, and talked to people they never in a million years thought they’d find common ground with.

Across the country, there once were isolated pockets of dedicated activists fighting to defeat plans to raze their homes and businesses for the benefit of private parties. Now, they are uniting.

The new network is called the Castle Coalition, because everyone’s home, and everyone’s property, is their castle—a place where they should be safe and free from government overreaching. Homeowners, civil rights activists, and small business owners from 15 states have united to trade strategies and learn how to effectively fight eminent domain abuse in their communities.

If an elderly widow’s house in Des Plaines, Illinois can be condemned for a Walgreens, no one’s home is safe. Under the U.S. Constitution, our property rights are not conditioned on the whim of those with financial and political influence. Nor should they be sacrificed just so municipalities can put more money in their coffers.

It’s time for citizens to tell their state and local governments that enough is enough. The abuse of eminent domain to take property for other private parties must end. That’s what the Castle Coalition intends to accomplish.

Dana Berliner and Scott Bullock are both senior attorneys at the Institute for Justice. They currently litigate cases challenging eminent domain abuses in Connecticut, Mississippi, and New York. For more information, visit www.castlecoalition.org.

For more information ...

Government Theft: The Top 10 Abuses of Eminent Domain: 1998-2002. “Eminent domain ... is a despotic power ... Yet government increasingly uses the eminent domain power to condemn property for private uses. Acting more like real estate agents than public servants, government agencies form unholy alliances with developers in order to force the rightful owners off of their property.” (Castle Coalition, 2002, 14pp.)

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