Last month, the Institute for Justice and local property-owners-turned-activists struck a decisive victory for property rights in Mt. Airy, North Carolina. This fight provides a perfect example of how threatened property owners can employ grassroots activism to quickly defeat redevelopment projects. Here’s the blow-by-blow:
In the center of Mt. Airy lies an abandoned factory known as the Spencer’s property. Now city-owned, the former children’s clothing manufacturer closed its doors nearly a decade ago. Intending to revitalize the site, the City Board of Commissioners created the Mt. Airy Redevelopment Commission. The Board gave the new authority specific instructions to only plan for the redevelopment of the government-owned property and to keep away from private property. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.
One of the city commissioners appointed to serve on the RDC was Steve Yokeley. He, without support from his colleagues on the Board of Commissioners, decided to include private businesses and homes in the redevelopment plan. In September 2015, the rogue RDC promulgated the Westside Redevelopment Plan, which recommended that the city declare 20 privately owned properties “blighted” and append them to the Spencer’s property for redevelopment. If property owners did not cooperate, the RDC could authorize eminent domain to condemn the properties. In a July 6 Mt. Airy News article, Commissioner Yokeley was quoted saying, “If the owners are not interested in developing (property) themselves, which is the ideal situation, it could be taken.”
That’s troubling because eminent domain is supposed to be for public use—like roads and bridges—not for economic development projects.
And that’s where IJ came in.
IJ’s activism team organized the property owners and helped them create a new organization, the Mt. Airy Property Rights Alliance, with one mission: remove the private properties from the plan.
Consistent interaction with the media was crucial. MAPRA and IJ issued a press release announcing the group’s formation, had an op-ed published, and secured press coverage again and again. The sustained media attention changed the terms of the debate and put the ball in the city commission’s court and caused them to debate the matter at every subsequent meeting.
The inclusion of the private properties in the plan became a hot topic of debate during the upcoming elections. Four of the five city commissioners plus the mayor were up for reelection. The RDC planted a challenger in each election, but the citizens of Mt. Airy showed their support for the threatened businesses by reelecting all of the commissioners who opposed the redevelopment of private properties, plus the likeminded mayor.
On Thursday, January 21, after hearing MAPRA demand that their property rights be respected, the Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 to dissolve the RDC and manage the project themselves. Less than a week later, the commissioners voted to redraw the boundaries of the redevelopment plan, removing every private property from its footprint.
The property owners’ quick success in Mt. Airy was, in part, ensured by following the steps outlined in IJ’s Eminent Domain Abuse Survival Guide. This guide is your playbook for mounting a grassroots insurgency against government land grabs. If you or your neighbors are threatened by redevelopment projects and eminent domain abuse, contact IJ’s activism team and request your guide immediately.
Phil Applebaum is IJ’s activism coordinator