By Dana Berliner
It should come as no surprise that government bureaucrats can’t bear to let go of power. Yet the powers-that-be in Lakewood, Ohio, are taking this to truly astonishing extremes.
In late 2002, the City of Lakewood announced it was pursuing a plan with private developers to replace a cozy, middle-class residential neighborhood with more upscale housing and the nearby businesses with ritzier ones. As a number of people announced they did not want to leave their homes for the benefit of private developers, the City needed a justification for taking the homes and businesses by eminent domain. The City Council declared the area “blighted,” based on conditions like lack of two-car garages and two full bathrooms, which in the City’s eyes rendered the area uninhabitable. Removing the alleged public menace caused by one-car garages would make the area ready for private development and the additional tax dollars the City hoped that would bring.
Despite repeated warnings from residents and businesses that they would resist this land grab, and despite the examples from many other localities that forcing similar projects have been public relations disasters that have divided communities for years, the City moved forward. After it approved the “blight” designation and the contract for the project, the Institute for Justice filed suit on behalf of 17 families who wanted to remain in their homes and businesses.
At the same time, several concerned citizens formed a group to put the project up for a vote. One local Lakewood couple, Mark and Gilda Timieski, do not live in the neighborhood to be condemned but recognized the threat for all of Lakewood. They, along with other residents, gathered enough signatures to get a referendum on the ballot. Dubbed “Issue 47,” the referendum asked voters to vote “no” on the agreement with the private developer to construct the privately owned shopping center and condominiums. The breakdown of support was depressingly consistent. As we have seen all across the country, people who saw themselves as local “leaders” all supported the project. After all, they weren’t losing their homes, and they’d be able to shop at Pottery Barn. So, the Chamber of Commerce, larger local businesses, the League of Women Voters, and the local hospital (which purportedly has its eye on someone else’s property) all endorsed the project. So did the Plain Dealer, the largest area newspaper, although the Lakewood Sun Post came out against it.
At the close of the polls on November 3, 2003, voters rejected the redevelopment plan by a razor-thin margin of 39 votes. After absentee ballots and recounts, that number rose to 47.
That should have meant the end of the project and our lawsuit. But those City “leaders” just can’t let it go. First there was talk about having to go forward anyway because the contract with the developer already had been signed. Then there was some discussion of whether the developer would sue. Now that the principal developer has withdrawn from the project, the new Mayor (who was formerly a city councilman and voted for the project) is suggesting a “smaller” project, which presumably won’t take as much property as the previous plan. The Mayor refuses to get rid of the blight designation, saying it is necessary for outside funding. Nor will he get rid of the resolutions to condemn several local businesses, including those of our clients. Lakewood doesn’t need the blight designation to obtain funding, but even if it did, the City shouldn’t be lying to get money.
There’s another vote in March 2004, this time to get rid of the blight designation. The neighborhood looks far too good for any reasonable person to call it blighted. Why doesn’t the City just give up now rather than put its citizens through yet another expensive and divisive election cycle? Who knows?
The referendum’s success is particularly significant because the local citizens were overwhelmingly outspent. In total, the citizens trying to stop the project and condemnations raised a mere $24,000, much of it donations of printing services from the Institute for Justice. The bigwigs in charge of the campaign for the project spent $84,000, sent out multiple direct mailings, and even distributed a video of happy consumers shopping. They still lost.
If the government of Lakewood had any sense, it would abandon its sham blight designation and let everyone go on with their lives. But if they had any sense, they never would have passed it in the first place. So, until further notice, the Institute for Justice’s lawsuit continues. One way or another, whether through litigation or outreach effort, IJ will do everything in its power to ensure that all the home and business owners of the West End are free from the abuse of eminent domain.
Dana Berliner is an IJ senior attorney.