Washington, D.C.—Can a private developer urge a city government to do a “blight” study of an attractive, middle-class neighborhood neighborhood, pay for that study, and then receive the land once the City approves the study and uses it to force out property owners who do not wish to sell to the developer?
In Norwood, Ohio, local bureaucrats believe the answer is “yes.” But the nine owners of 12 homes and small businesses in Norwood’s Edwards Road neighborhood are hoping to prove them wrong. Today, they filed a lawsuit with the help of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice. The lawsuit asks the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas to overturn the City of Norwood’s bogus “blight” designation in the Edwards Road neighborhood, thereby preventing the City from condemning these homes and businesses and handing the land over to Cincinnati-based developer Jeffrey R. Anderson Real Estate.
Carl and Joy Gamble are among those fighting to save their properties from eminent domain abuse. They have lived for more than 34 years in their well-kept home, with a huge backyard, on Atlantic Avenue in Norwood. “We are not interested in selling our home,” said Joy Gamble. “We’ve said clearly from the very beginning that we just want to be left alone to enjoy what is rightfully ours. The City shouldn’t try to take our home just so a developer can make money off of our land.”
The Gambles worked hard their entire lives and raised two kids in Norwood. When they sold their small, family-owned grocery store in November 2001 and retired, they looked forward to quiet days gardening in their yard and enjoying visits from their now-grown children.
But Cincinnati developer Jeffrey Anderson has different plans for the Gambles and their neighbors. He wants to expand his nearby Rookwood Commons and build “Rookwood Exchange,” a complex of private office buildings, condominiums and chain stores to replace the homes and locally owned businesses in the Gambles’ neighborhood. Anderson bought many of the properties in the area, but the Gambles and some of their neighbors are not interested in selling. That is when Norwood’s city government became involved. Because Anderson was unable to obtain the homes and businesses in the open marketplace, he asked Norwood’s City Council to pursue an urban renewal study of the area to see if the neighborhood was “blighted.” Anderson paid for the study, which the City Counsel approved on August 26, 2003, despite the fact that even a brief walk or drive through the neighborhood would clearly show that it is not in any way blighted. Indeed, the study itself admitted that not one of the 99 homes or businesses in the area was dilapidated or delinquent on taxes. Anderson has also agreed to reimburse the City for the cost of condemning and taking the properties.
“The so-called urban renewal plan for this area is a fraud,” said Scott Bullock, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, which is representing the Norwood home and business owners in their suit. “The study was done simply because the City wants to use eminent domain to force out property owners who refuse to sell. The idea that one person should be forced to sacrifice her peace and happiness so that someone else can profit financially is repugnant to the principles of American society. It can not be tolerated.”
A few years ago, Mary Beth Wilker and her husband, Nick Motz, bought and renovated a building in the Edwards Road neighborhood to house Mary Beth’s graphic design business, Wilker Design. They, too, stand to lose their business through eminent domain abuse.
“The idea that this neighborhood is blighted is absurd,” said Wilker. “Our business is in a great location and is doing well. We have no interest in selling our property, and the City has no right to take it and give it to another business.”
The Norwood City Council is expected to give final approval tonight (September 23) to take through eminent domain five of the plaintiffs’ properties, including the Gambles’ home and Wilker Design. The homes and businesses owned by the remaining four plaintiffs are also in the urban renewal zone and could be subject to eminent domain at any point in the future. These four plaintiffs wish to eliminate the bogus blight designation from their properties and remove the threat of eminent domain.
Norwood is not alone in its efforts to take property for private economic development. Indeed, Ohio has had more than its fair share of eminent domain abuses in recent years. Lakewood, a city on the outskirts of Cleveland, has declared a neighborhood very similar to the targeted area in Norwood “blighted” so that the land can be transferred to private developers, including, incredibly, Jeffrey Anderson—the same developer who stands to profit from the Norwood condemnations. The Institute for Justice is currently challenging Lakewood’s attempt to take the neighborhood in court. Toledo condemned many homes for a Chrysler plant that turned out to produce far fewer jobs than originally projected. In total, Ohio cities have condemned or threatened to condemn more than 400 properties in just the past five years.
The Institute for Justice is the nation’s leading legal advocate against the abuse of eminent domain, currently fighting battles across the nation against the taking of private properties by governments for the benefit of private parties. These include cases in Lakewood, Ohio; New London, Conn; Mesa, Ariz.; and metropolitan New York. 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.; Canton, Miss.; Pittsburgh, Penn.; and Baltimore, Md.
Assisting IJ as local counsel in the Norwood case is noted Cincinnati land use attorney Robert P. Malloy of Wood & Lamping, LLP.