J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · August 16, 2016

The city of Elberton is threatening to use eminent domain to take a 567 square foot office building and turn it into a pedestrian walkway for a $5 million hotel.

For nearly 20 years, Bob and Rina Thomas have operated their family-owned business from a small office building on the Public Square of Elberton, Georgia. In that time, the Thomases have made a happy life in Elberton’s tight-knit community.

But that could all come to an abrupt end.

After the Thomases refused to sell their building to the city in April to make way for renovation of a hotel, the city turned around and announced plans to bulldoze the Thomas’ building to build a pedestrian walkway—even though there is a similar sidewalk less than 100 feet down the street. Now the city is invoking eminent domain to seize the Thomas’ building by using a “quick take” procedure intended to build highways—not clear land for the convenience of private businesses.

“A sidewalk is not a highway,” said IJ Senior Attorney Paul Avelar. “Elberton is trying to sidestep Georgia’s strong property rights protections by suggesting that a sidewalk is actually a highway. Of course it is not, and we’re confident that a judge will see the city’s property rights abuse for what it is: An illegal, pretextual attempt to use eminent domain to prop up a private business.”

Bob and Rina’s poultry business stands at the crossroads of the community. Local restaurant owners and churches drop by to pick up poultry products for their events. They sell tickets for the local community theater down the street and use the office for political meetings. With so many roots in the community, the building’s location on the town square is ideal.

The Thomases’ problems began when the city bought the Samuel Elbert Hotel, which is next door to their building. The city secured a loan and commenced a $4.9 million project to renovate the hotel. When complete, the city will lease space in the building to private companies that wish to operate inside. Indeed, it has already signed a lease with a private restaurant.

The city tried to buy the Thomases’ property for the hotel renovation. But the Thomases did not want to sell because there was no comparable property on the square they could have purchased. Selling meant leaving and they did not want to leave. So the Thomases declined the city’s offers, instead closing their building in exchange for a simple fee while the city’s renovation crews used heavy machinery overhead.

Georgia has strong protections for private property rights, which were sparked as part of the backlash after the Supreme Court’s Kelo decision. But the city is attempting to bypass these protections by using a statute governing highway construction to perform a “quick take” of the Thomases’ property. That statute gives the Thomases just 30 days to contest the taking. But Elberton is not building a highway; it is building a pedestrian walkway and it is doing it as pretext for the hotel renovation, none of which the law allows.

“The city is behaving like highwaymen, trying to take the Thomases’ building by deceitfully misusing the state’s laws,” said IJ Attorney Josh House. “The city’s motivations are clear: They are trying to circumvent state law and use eminent domain to benefit a private business. But the law couldn’t be any clearer: Using eminent domain to benefit private interests is plainly illegal. We’re confident that a judge will recognize that and swiftly dismiss the city’s illegal land-grab. ”

The Institute for Justice is the nation’s leading public interest law firm fighting to protect property rights. IJ has earned the reputation as a formidable foe of eminent domain abuse. It  has litigated eminent domain cases nationwide, successfully preserving the rights and properties of the politically and financially disenfranchised.