Institute for Justice and Lakewood Homeowners File Lawsuit Challenging Bogus “Blight” Designation

John Kramer
John Kramer · May 19, 2003

Washington, D.C.—May a city government declare homes and small businesses in an attractive, well-kept neighborhood “blighted,” bulldoze them, and then hand the land on which they stood to a private developer?

In Lakewood, Ohio—and in towns and cities across the nation—local bureaucrats believe the answer is ‘yes,’ but the owners of 18 homes and small businesses in Lakewood’s West End neighborhood are hoping to prove them wrong with a lawsuit filed today with the help of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice. The lawsuit asks the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas to overturn the City of Lakewood’s designation of “blight” in the West End neighborhood, thereby preventing the City from condemning these homes and businesses and handing the land to Cincinnati-based developer Jeffrey R. Anderson Real Estate, as well as two other private developers, CenterPoint Properties and Heartland Developers, LLC.

Jim and JoAnn Saleet have lived in their dream home on Gridley Street, overlooking the Rocky River, since 1965. They have raised four children there and hope to pass their home on to their daughter, Judy. After nearly 40 years happily ensconced in their home, the Saleets were stunned when Lakewood Mayor Madeline Cain announced that, to increase the city’s tax base, the City was helping a developer replace their home and neighborhood with high-end shopping and upscale condos. Suddenly, the Saleets face the prospect of losing their home through eminent domain abuse, where government takes one person’s private property only to hand it over to another private party.

Sadly, the Saleets and their West End neighbors are not alone; they are part of a nationwide trend of eminent domain abuse. A recent report, “Public Power, Private Gain,” found that in just the past five years state and local governments across the nation have taken or threatened to take by force more than 10,000 homes, businesses, churches and private land not for a “public use”—such as a police station or post office—but for private economic development.

“No one could honestly call this neighborhood blighted—it’s an outrageous case of government abuse,” said Dana Berliner, Institute for Justice senior attorney and author of “Public Power, Private Gain.” “We will do everything in our power to protect our clients’ constitutional rights—to protect their homes and businesses from the abuse of eminent domain.”

In December 2002, the City of Lakewood officially approved a “community development plan,” along with a finding that the Saleets’ neighborhood was “blighted” under Lakewood law. A “blight study” alleged that the neighborhood had a disproportionate number of police and fire department calls and was “functionally and economically obsolete.” But not only does the West End neighborhood look just like all the other homes in Lakewood, there had been no major crimes or fires. Among the “blighting factors” in the City’s report are lack of a two-car attached garage and less than two full bathrooms. Those “factors” do not distinguish the West End from any other part of Lakewood.

“Our home is our haven, our peace and a repository of the memories of the best years of our lives,” said JoAnn Saleet. “We and the rest of our neighbors should not be forced out of our homes because private developers want to put a pedestrian mall and high-priced condominiums on the land on which they sit.”

Julie and Hal Wiltse have lived in Lakewood more than 40 years in the West End. Sandeep Dixit chose the neighborhood only a few years ago as a safe, comfortable place to raise his two young children. Christa Eckert Blum, whose grandfather’s home in Latvia was seized by the Soviets during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, moved to the West End eight years ago with her husband. These and the other Lakewood residents have made their houses into homes—but now they face the wrecking ball of eminent domain abuse.

“Eminent domain was meant for roads and post offices, not for replacing middle-class homes with high-end condos,” said Bert Gall, Institute for Justice staff attorney. “Anyone’s home or small business would generate more taxes for the City as a shopping mall—that’s no justification to use government force to take them away.”

“If our home isn’t safe, nobody’s home is safe,” added Jim Saleet.

Ably assisting the Institute for Justice as local counsel are Michael Gareau, Sr., and David Gareau, both of Michael R. Gareau & Associates, LLP.

The Institute for Justice is a nonprofit, public interest law firm currently fighting battles across the nation against the taking of private properties by governments for the benefit of private parties. These include cases in metropolitan New York; New London, Conn.; and Mesa, Ariz. IJ has already scored victories against the abuse of eminent domain in court and in the court of public opinion in Atlantic City, N.J.; Baltimore; Pittsburgh; and Canton, Miss.