Activism in Action

December 30, 2009

The Castle Coalition’s multifaceted approach to defeating eminent domain abuse through outreach, organizing and activism continues to prove successful, ensuring hard-working property owners get to keep what they have worked so hard to own.

Each day, we are contacted by property owners facing the loss of their homes, their small businesses or their land at the hands of bureaucrats. Kevin and Valerie Holler contacted the Castle Coalition when they found out that the property they rent out to two families and their abutting business were on an acquisition list for a new library in northern Minneapolis. Although libraries are a “public use,” the county was taking an unnecessary and excessive amount of land.

We sent the Hollers our Eminent Domain Abuse Survival Guide—which we created to teach people how to fight for their land using IJ’s tactics—and anti-eminent domain abuse posters. Using the techniques detailed in the guide, and with help from IJ Minnesota Chapter Executive Director Lee McGrath, the Hollers won. They convinced the county that taking their property was not necessary, and the commission even rescinded their prior grant of authority to use eminent domain to take any additional property for its construction.

Our Survival Guide directs property owners through the process of becoming effective activists and serves as a critical tool citizens use to fight land-hungry developers and tax-hungry governments. Often, simply educating neighbors about a threatened land grab, showing up at city council meetings and posting signs in windows is sufficient to make the municipality back down from seizing land. Other times, it is essential that IJ staff travel to the targeted community and help guide and organize citizens to ensure they are properly prepared to fight the powers that be.

On the North Side of St. Louis, developer Paul McKee has been purchasing properties for the past five years and letting them fall into disrepair. Unbeknownst to the remaining property owners until recently, the developer has plans for their land, too: McKee submitted an application for tax increment financing and the power of eminent domain to the city, asking for more than $400 million and the authority to acquire privately owned properties on his list of more than 4,500 parcels.

Just as the Hollers had done, area resident Romona Taylor Williams contacted the Castle Coalition for help. Romona is an activist with whom IJ worked to defeat a land grab disguised as urban renewal in Charleston, W.V.

The North Side is an African-American community, scarred by ill-conceived urban renewal attempts of the 1950s and 1960s. In August, I spoke to a community meeting of concerned citizens at the Shining Light Pentecostal Church, which is on McKee’s acquisition list. Pastor Bennie Thompson’s beautiful church has been at its location for more than 70 years, and he has no plans to leave. Before a packed house of local residents, activists and the media, I discussed eminent domain abuse and helped them develop an action plan to ensure they can keep what they have worked so hard to own. Fired up, the group soon thereafter hosted a petition drive at the church where property owners stopped by and filled out forms demanding the city remove them from McKee’s acquisition list. The evening before the first hearing on the proposal, the group held a successful “Save Our Community” rally, and we are currently planning a North Side Harvest Festival to raise awareness about what is going on and the need for eminent domain reform in Missouri.

From sending the Survival Guide and its companion DVD, Not for Sale, to hands-on in-person training, the Castle Coalition continues to empower homeowners, small businesses and churches to fight for their land and keep their share of the American Dream.

Christina Walsh is IJ’s director of activism and coalitions.

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