With Pittsburgh & Baltimore Victories, IJ Launches New Eminent Domain Fight
Ending eminent domain abuse—where individuals’ homes and businesses are taken by the government not for a public use but for private economic development—has become one of the central missions of the Institute for Justice’s property rights program. The last two months of the Year 2000 brought hard-earned victories in two of our efforts and a new suit to block yet another outrageous effort by government to take private property to give to other private parties—in this case, for a health club and office space.
Pittsburgh Takes Eminent Domain Off the Table
Displaying an utter lack of understanding of the market and even less concern for constitutional rights, Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy proposed using eminent domain to take more than 60 privately owned buildings and over 120 small, mostly locally owned businesses in the Fifth and Forbes area of downtown to hand the land over to a Chicago-based developer to bring in national chain stores. On March 1, 2000, the Institute made Pittsburgh “ground zero” in our nationwide battle against eminent domain abuse. On that day, we announced at a rally in Market Square in downtown Pittsburgh that we would represent for free any property owners who wanted to keep their businesses. (As local Pittsburgh activist Bernie Lynch explains on page 10, our commitment to the property owners gave them much-needed leverage to battle the City and its powerful allies, including city agencies, developers, perhaps a majority of the city council, and the region’s largest newspaper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, whose editorial page continually promoted Murphy’s proposal.)
At times, the odds seemed greatly stacked against the property owners, but they and the Institute persevered to eliminate eminent domain from the equation. We wrote numerous op-eds and spoke at forums, rallies and hearings. We erected billboard advertisements throughout Pittsburgh attacking the Mayor’s abuse of eminent domain at Fifth and Forbes. We placed newspaper ads featuring the human face in this battle: the property owners who stood to lose their small businesses, many of which had been in their families for generations. All the while we strategized with local activists and prepared legal papers should the City move against the property owners.
As a result of our months-long campaign, the dynamics changed as fall neared. It was the Mayor, rather than the property owners, who felt the pressure to give in. Finally, the day before Thanksgiving, Nordstrom department store—the centerpiece of the Mayor’s development—announced it would not build a store in downtown Pittsburgh. Murphy was forced to declare his proposed Marketplace at Fifth and Forbes project, with its threat of eminent domain, dead. On that day, the Institute urged Mayor Murphy, as we did throughout this battle, to declare publicly that he would not use eminent domain in any new effort to revitalize downtown. With public pressure mounting, he made that pledge at last. We had won.
That Thanksgiving weekend, I visited my family near Pittsburgh where I grew up and attended the victory party held by the property owners at the Chart Room Café, a classic Pittsburgh establishment that was to be torn down if the Mayor got his way. It was wonderful to be able to celebrate this victory with the people who fought so valiantly for the protection of property rights in Pittsburgh and throughout Pennsylvania.
Given his history, we will keep a close eye on Mayor Murphy (if he survives a stiff reelection battle next year.) Of course, if he starts down the eminent domain path again, our offer to defend existing Pittsburgh business owners remains. But for this battle, downtown business owners can breathe a heavy sigh of relief knowing that the sword of eminent domain has now been lifted from above their heads.
Scott Bullock warns Maryland residents how new legislation could expand eminent domain abuse in their state.
Baltimore Voters Reject Expanded Eminent Domain
A growing grassroots rebellion is underway against abusive eminent domain actions, and perhaps nowhere was this more evident recently than in Baltimore County, Maryland.
Earlier this year, the Maryland legislature passed a law—S.B. 509—that tore away cherished property rights by granting Baltimore County vastly expanded power to take property through eminent domain. Senior Attorney Dana Berliner testified against the legislation at hearings.
Once it was passed, the Institute strategized with local property owners about challenging the legislation when it became effective in November. But community activists along with owners who stood to lose their property under the law were so outraged by the county’s action and the legislature’s willingness to confiscate property that they garnered enough signatures to place a referendum on the November 2000 ballot to invalidate the law. The Institute continued its pressure by speaking out against the legislation, writing opinion pieces and, finally, serving as the featured speaker at a rally the Thursday before the election. At the rally, I explained why S.B. 509 epitomizes the abuse of eminent domain throughout the country and how the law practically invites government officials to trade away the homes and businesses of residents to politically connected developers in the name of economic renewal. On Election Day, the expanded eminent domain authority was crushed at the ballot box with 70 percent of the vote cast against it.
New London Property Owners Battle For Their Rights
No sooner were those victories secured, however, than we filed suit in December 2000 against yet another example of eminent domain abuse. The City of New London, Connecticut, and a private body, the New London Development Corporation (NLDC), are condemning homes and businesses in Fort Trumbull, a well-established, working-class neighborhood along a beautiful stretch of waterfront property. The plan is to take this land to build a privately owned health club, office space and unspecified development projects to enhance a new Pfizer facility that moved next door.
The battle lines in New London have been drawn. The City and the NLDC want everyone out by March 2001; but a group of committed property owners, including a property owner whose family has lived in Fort Trumbull for more than 100 years and in the same house since 1901, are not interested in selling and leaving the neighborhood.
You will hear a lot more about our New London case in future newsletters, but suffice to say for now that if you thought Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy was the poster boy for eminent domain abuse, wait until you meet Claire Gaudiani, the head of the NLDC, the private corporation to which the City of New London transferred its awesome eminent domain power. An academic and former president of Connecticut College, she justifies her actions in New London as the pursuit of “social justice.” She likes to compare what she is doing in New London to the work of Jesus and Martin Luther King. (As Dave Barry would say, we are not making this up.) She is also unapologetic about the use of eminent domain to force people from their homes and businesses. As she puts it: “Anything that’s working in our great nation is working because someone left skin on the sidewalk.” She is a real- life Ellsworth Toohey.
The Institute for Justice will do everything in its power to make sure that the Constitution and these people’s lives and livelihoods are not skinned and left on the sidewalk.
Scott Bullock is a senior attorney for the Institute for Justice.