Eminent Domain Abuse Could Take Music Out of Music City:

John Kramer
John Kramer · June 19, 2008

Arlington, Va.—World-famous Music Row in Nashville may lose a homegrown music producer as a result of eminent domain abuse. Country International Records, which has encouraged countless aspiring artists over its three decades, may soon be bulldozed to make way for a Houston developer to construct a high rise for the developer’s private gain.

Is this a proper use of government power?

The Institute for Justice, which is leading the nationwide fight against eminent domain abuse, doesn’t think so, and that is why today it has joined Country International Records owner Joy Ford in her fight to battle eminent domain for private gain.

In June 2008, Nashville’s redevelopment agency filed a condemnation action against Country International Records, located on the city’s storied Music Row.

“Nashville wants to take a unique, independent, small business to make way for another generic office building on Music Row that will house businesses that have nothing to do with music,” said Scott Bullock, an IJ senior attorney who will be representing Ford and who argued the landmark Kelo case. “By condemning Country International, Nashville is not only violating the Constitution and Tennessee law, it is taking a piece of its heart and soul in the process.”

“I am not interested in selling my property at any price; this isn’t about money for me,” said Joy Ford, who founded Country International along with her late husband in 1974. “This is about principle. I just want to hold on to a business that has meant so much to my family and a lot of other folks in country music. I should have the right to do that in the United States of America.”

Although never a big player in the business, Country International has had a steady and nurturing influence on many country musicians and songwriters, a role that continues to this day. Over the years, Ford has refused several offers to buy her property. But in March 2008, Nashville’s redevelopment agency, the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency (MDHA), made a deal with a Houston-based developer, the Lionstone Group, to acquire Ford’s property to put up an office tower.

Incredibly, the developer admitted in 2006 that it did not need the property in order to build the office building. “The power of eminent domain should only be used for necessary public uses, like a road or a courthouse, not to make things more convenient for a private developer,” Bullock said.

MDHA is relying on a bogus 1999 “blight” designation to justify its taking of Country International. Unfortunately for MDHA but fortunately for Joy Ford, the Tennessee legislature changed the law in 2006 in the wake of the Kelo ruling to make it more difficult for cities to concoct blight designations like this one. The MDHA must comply with Tennessee’s new eminent domain law; it may not condemn a property by relying on an older and invalid blight designation.

Bullock said, “Everyone knows this condemnation is not about eliminating blight. No one claims that Mrs. Ford’s small, well-kept building is blighted. The city is just using the blight designation as a cover for its real purpose, which is to transfer the property to a private developer for its own private gain and to get the tax revenue the new development supposedly will bring. Tennessee law forbids condemnation for tax revenue, and this condemnation violates Tennessee law.”

On July 21, 2008, the Institute for Justice, along with local counsel Jim Fisher of the Nashville law firm Lassiter Tidwell, filed an answer and objections to the condemnation petition in the circuit court of Davidson County. It also served discovery on both MDHA and Lionstone to find out the basis for its condemnation. The circuit court in Nashville will ultimately hold a “right to possession” hearing to determine the legality of MDHA’s action.

Ford said, “If you truly own your business or a piece of land, then it should be your personal decision—not the government’s—if you sell it and to whom you sell it. We shouldn’t be forced out just because the developer has more money and influence. If this can happen to me, this can happen to anyone.”

This isn’t the only example of a local government in Tennessee abusing its power when it comes to eminent domain. Richard Swift and Wayne Wilkinson are developers in Clarksville, Tenn., who are using the power of government to benefit developers—and they sued citizens, demanding $500,000, simply for saying so. The Clarksville Property Rights Coalition, a grassroots group formed to fight the eminent domain abuse, ran an ad in the local newspaper criticizing elected officials and developers for backing a redevelopment plan including eminent domain. Swift is a developer and a member of the Clarksville City Council, and Wilkinson is a member of Clarksville’s Downtown District Partnership. Swift and Wilkinson are trying to silence and intimidate their critics with frivolous litigation. But all citizens have a First Amendment right to speak out against government abuse—without getting sued for their speech by the very people whose actions they are protesting. IJ stepped in to defend the CPRC and its members and set an example that activists fighting eminent domain abuse will not be silenced by such attempts at censorship.

The Institute for Justice has litigated eminent domain cases nationwide in court and in the court of public opinion, successfully preserving the rights and properties of the politically and financially disenfranchised.