Beating Bogus “Blight” in Lakewood, Ohio
By Bert Gall
“Our nightmare is finally over!” exclaimed JoAnn Saleet, one of the Institute for Justice’s clients in our challenge to the City of Lakewood, Ohio’s attempt to destroy her neighborhood with eminent domain abuse. In order to collect increased tax revenues from the area, the City had sought to take private property and hand it over to a developer for high-end condos and upscale shopping. On March 2, Lakewood voters rejected this land grab by repealing the bogus “blight” label that hung over the neighborhood and would have allowed the City to proceed with taking these properties when the next developer came along.
Last year, the City was poised to tear down the Saleets’ home, as well as the homes and businesses of their neighbors. Needing a legal excuse to take land it did not own, the City labeled the area “blighted.” Because the area is beautiful and well kept, the government used a broad definition of “blight” that included things like not having a two-car garage, three full bedrooms or two full bathrooms. Under that definition, 93 percent of homes in Lakewood would have characteristics of “blight.”
Last May, IJ sued the City on behalf of the Saleets and 16 other families to save the neighborhood from the City’s wrecking ball. Meanwhile, a concerned citizens group called the Committee for Lakewood began a grassroots effort to save the neighborhood by means of the ballot box.
In November, Lakewood voters rejected the plan to build the mall and condominiums. But even after voters defeated the plan, the City refused to remove the “blight” label. Because the label allowed the City to give their land to any private developer that wanted it, the Saleets and their neighbors still lived in constant fear of losing their homes and businesses. Citizens from across Lakewood were outraged; by an overwhelming margin, they voted in the March election to end the “blight” label and let the residents of the West End resume their normal lives.
IJ was proud to pull out all the stops to advance this important grassroots effort. As it does all over the country, IJ’s Castle Coalition provided local activists with tactical ideas and advice. We helped the property owners tell their story to the media. We also made donations to help with expenses for things like printing costs. Together, our litigation and outreach efforts were a powerful one-two punch that helped save the neighborhood.
Senior Attorney Dana Berliner, Castle Coalition Coordinator Rob Wiles, Senior Paralegal Gretchen Embrey, and I had the honor of watching the March 2 election returns with our clients and activists from all over Lakewood. As the final returns came in, neighbors hugged each other and cried tears of joy and relief.
A few of our clients took me aside and told me that before IJ had stepped in to help them, they had lost all hope of saving their neighborhood. IJ, they said, had restored that hope. IJ is already hard at work spreading the word of this important victory so other activists can draw inspiration from it and more neighborhoods will be able to stop their local governments from abusing the power of eminent domain.
Bert Gall is an IJ attorney.