While the popular backlash against the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo continues to curtail eminent domain abuse across the country, many land-hungry developers and tax-hungry bureaucrats refuse to go gently into that good night. There’s no more striking example of that than the ongoing saga of eminent domain abuse in Port Chester, N.Y.
In 1996, Bill Brody bought four connected, abandoned buildings in downtown Port Chester and completely renovated them by doing what he does best: working hard. He installed new roofs and a new sprinkler system, and even hung a chandelier in the lobby, doing much of the work himself. When he was served with papers in 2000 notifying him that Port Chester was condemning his property to make way for a shopping mall, he figured he would apply that same work ethic to fighting the condemnation. There was only one problem: he could not. In New York, property owners can only challenge a condemnation when the government first authorizes a redevelopment project—something that can happen months or even years before any property is taken—and the law allowed condemnors to keep this limited ability to challenge condemnations practically a secret. In Bill’s case, he lost his rights almost one year before he received his condemnation papers. Nobody had bothered to tell him.
Undeterred, Bill joined forces with the Institute for Justice to take on New York’s eminent domain laws, which allowed local bureaucrats to strip people of their rights without sending them so much as a postcard. Seven years later, he has tallied an impressive string of victories. The media has roundly denounced the stacked deck offered by New York’s laws. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held that the laws were unconstitutional. Even the New York State Legislature has amended the state’s eminent domain laws to require formal notice to property owners before any rights can be taken away.
The only people seemingly unfazed by these victories are the bureaucrats and developers who run Port Chester’s redevelopment project. After losing two appeals to the 2nd Circuit, they continue to insist they have done nothing wrong. If anything, they are outraged that Bill has had the gall to stand up for his constitutional rights. They have asked the court to block Bill from recovering his property on the grounds that he should have figured out New York’s illogical system for himself. For example, they claim he should have been reading the legal notice section of the newspaper every day for a year to see if his property might be under threat, even though the notices the village published did not say anything about challenging condemnation or explain that property owners would be unable to challenge the condemnation when it finally happened. In essence, they say he is at fault because he failed to chase down the government and ask if they were planning to violate his rights someday.
The extended litigation and absurd defenses on display in Port Chester are not unique. Arrogant bureaucrats, backed by deep-pocketed developers all too often steamroll property owners. After all, few people have the resources (or the stomach) for seven years of litigation in defense of their rights. Fortunately for the rest of us, Bill, backed by IJ, has shown he has the tenacity to put Port Chester’s underhanded tactics exactly where they belong: on the losing side.