Washington, D.C.—Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas Judge Kathleen Ann Sutula last week handed an early victory to Lakewood residents fighting to save their homes and small businesses from the wrecking ball of eminent domain abuse. Judge Sutula denied a request by the City of Lakewood to dismiss a lawsuit brought by 17 property owners against the City. The suit challenges the City’s declaration of “blight” in the West End of Lakewood, a designation that enables the City to take property by force and transfer it to a private developer.
“West End residents deserve their day in court to demonstrate just how outrageous the City’s attempted land grab is,” said Dana Berliner, senior attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, which represents the property owners in their challenge. “Every Ohioan is threatened when local bureaucrats can use bogus ‘blight’ designations to take homes and businesses for the benefit of private developers.”
In December 2002, the City of Lakewood officially approved a “community development plan,” along with a finding that the West End 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 garage and less than two full bathrooms. Those “factors” do not distinguish the West End from any other part of Lakewood.
“For local governments and private developers who enrich themselves by this kind of unconstitutional taking, this is a wake up call that the rules of the game are changing,” said Bert Gall, Institute for Justice attorney. “We will ensure that fairness and constitutional protections are restored.”
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.