Washington, D.C.—Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas Judge Beth A. Myers today ruled the City of Norwood, Ohio, abused its discretion in finding the Edwards Road neighborhood “blighted,” but went on to find that the area could be called “deteriorating.” Thus the judge ruled that the City was justified in using eminent domain to take five homes and businesses in the area so the land can be transferred to Cincinnati-based developer Jeffrey Anderson and his business partners for the Rookwood Exchange project.
“We are pleased that the judge found what everyone in the greater Cincinnati area knew: this neighborhood is not blighted and it was absurd for the City to claim that it was,” said Scott Bullock, senior attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, which represents the property owners. “Of course, we are disappointed that the judge still upheld the use of eminent domain under the much looser standard of ‘deteriorating.’ We will appeal that ruling.”
Among the criteria the City used to justify the “deteriorating” label is “diversity of ownership”—essentially, too many individual property owners in the particular area. “Under that standard, just about every residential neighborhood in America could be fair game for a politically connected developer,” Bullock said. “Instead of promoting and defending the concept of individual homeownership, the City is using this foundation of American freedom against the rightful homeowners in Norwood. We won’t let this stand.”
Dana Berliner, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, said, “The City of Norwood is on much shakier legal ground in justifying the use of eminent domain because a neighborhood is supposedly deteriorating. The Ohio Supreme Court has never held that a city can take land under the incredibly broad criteria of ‘deteriorating’ and we look forward to presenting this vital issue to the appellate courts.”
Under Ohio law, an appeal of the judge’s ruling on the legality of eminent domain will take place after the compensation trials are held in the five cases.
Anderson, whose company has $500 million in assets, and his business partners want to use government power to force out the rightful owners of the properties to expand his Rookwood Commons and build Rookwood Exchange, a complex of private office buildings, high-end apartments and chain stores to replace the homes and locally owned businesses in the Edwards Road neighborhood. Anderson sought all of the properties in the area, but several property owners 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 Council approved on August 26, 2003, even though a brief walk or drive through the neighborhood would clearly show that it is not in any way blighted. Indeed, the study admitted that not one of the 99 homes or businesses in the area was dilapidated or delinquent on taxes. Anderson is also paying for all costs of the condemnations, including the City’s legal fees.
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. For example, Lakewood, a city on the outskirts of Cleveland, had declared a neighborhood very similar to the targeted area in Norwood “blighted” so that the land could be transferred to private developers, including, incredibly, Jeffrey Anderson, the same developer who stands to profit from the Norwood condemnations. The citizens of Lakewood through an initiative repealed the designation.
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. In addition to Norwood, these cases include New London, Conn., 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.; Mesa, Ariz; Pittsburgh, Penn.; and Baltimore, Md.