Castle Coalition: Uniting Property Owners and Activists

March 1, 2002

By Scott G. Bullock

That statement is as true today as when it was written in 17th century England. But too often, governments treat individuals’ castles, whether they be homes or small businesses, as goodies to be given to developers and politically connected businesses.

To combat this alarming trend, the Institute has formed a group called the ?Castle Coalition? dedicated to stopping these land grabs wherever they occur. The Castle Coalition is a nationwide network of property owners and citizen activists who will work together to end eminent domain abuse.

The Institute has been involved in many eminent domain controversies over the past several years. One of the things we are struck by is the growing grassroots rebellion against eminent domain abuse and the level of outrage among people of good will in communities where these projects are proposed. This opposition to taking homes and businesses to turn over to private bodies cuts across ideology and other traditional divisions that might otherwise prevent people from joining forces to stop abuses of power. When told that their government is going to take away someone’s home to give it to Nissan or Costco or IKEA or some private developer, most people are not only outraged, but cannot believe that this could actually happen in America. They want to fight back and to lend assistance to those facing the taking of their property.

What they often lack, however, is the information and experience necessary to wage these battles. And that is why we formed the Castle Coalition—to tap into this grassroots energy and mobilize it to defeat eminent domain abuse.

Court battles are long, arduous and often prohibitively expensive, particularly when the cost is borne by one or two property owners. And due to the cost and time commitment involved with each of these cases, the Institute for Justice can handle only a small percentage of the abusive eminent domain cases that come to our attention. But effective local and national activism can dramatically change the landscape, scuttling attempts by government to help other private parties steal property for pet projects even before the rightful owners can get into court.

During the first weekend of March, we launched the Coalition’s website and held a conference in Washington, D.C., attended by approximately three dozen property owners and activists from 15 states. The attendees learned about the history and background of eminent domain law, building a grassroots coalition, working with the media and preparing for legal action. Two roundtable discussions were held with IJ staff and with experienced property owners and activists. They shared their stories and the lessons they learned with people who are only now beginning to gear up for battles in their particular communities.

During the panel discussion, Matt Dery of New London, Connecticut, spoke movingly of his family’s struggle to keep their century-old homes in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood. These battles are not about money, he reminded the group; they are about the ability of a family to keep its cherished memories and heritage alive in property that is special and unique to each individual. Janice Hundt of Baltimore County, Maryland, related some very helpful grassroots organizing strategies, garnered from her experience organizing a successful referendum in 2000 that repealed an expanded eminent domain law in the county. In fact, their campaign was so successful that the referendum received 70 percent support at the polls. And Stephanie Parker-Weaver (a.k.a. ?Sistuh Hurricane?), executive director of the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Jackson, Mississippi, electrified the crowd with impassioned comments about bringing her experience as a civil rights activist to the struggle to protect the property rights of three Mississippi homeowners against the State and Nissan Motor Corp.

The conference was topped off with a dinner and a screening of the Australian film The Castle, a funny and inspiring tale of a family fighting to save its home from eminent domain abuse (or, as it is called in Australian law, ?compulsory acquisition?).

The conference also provided an opportunity for informal discussion among IJ staff and the activists and property owners. Many attendees noted that it was comforting and inspiring simply to know that they are not alone in this effort, that other people are going through similar battles. Moreover, people who attended the conference were emboldened to work with one another and share information and strategies.

New York activist Joe Wright commented on the conference: ?The presentations were very well thought out and progressed easily from idea to action. And I’m sure the goal of the conference was to train activists, not just to simply educate us. I’m sure you wanted to equip us with the knowledge and the tools necessary to take reasoned action against injustice. You succeeded.?

Eminent domain abuse is corporate welfare at its worst. If trained citizen activists can band together, however, they can defeat some very powerful interests intent on taking homes and small businesses for the private benefit of others. We look forward to keeping you updated on the many activities of the Castle Coalition as it furthers its mission of stopping government theft of private property.

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