X Marks the Spot Of Eminent Domain Abuse

John Kramer
John Kramer · May 25, 2005

Washington, D.C.—How would a big orange X look on your door?

The photo to the right is the front door of Joy and Carl Gamble’s home. As the trend of eminent domain abuse continues and the nation awaits the U.S. Supreme Court’s most important eminent domain abuse decision in more than 50 years, homeowners should rightfully worry if their home may be “Xed” next.

A spray-painted orange X appeared on the Gambles’ door in Norwood, Ohio, days after they were forced to evacuate their home. Just as foresters mark trees for loggers to cut down, the X is a painful sign that the Gambles’ house faces demolition. Since then, a court order prohibits their house from being destroyed while the legal fight to defend the home rages on. The Gambles, however, are now not even permitted to visit their home and the X remains on their door. This insulting and cruel action is the latest development in their long battle with a private developer who has exploited the governmental power of eminent domain for his private benefit.

Developers across the country are turning to local officials to help them gain desirable property that they cannot secure through private negotiations. Developers turn instead to eminent domain, the power of government to take private land for “public use.” Governments nationwide are blurring the definition of public use from projects the public would own and use, such as a road or post office, to mean anything that may increase tax revenue. (Constructing private office buildings, condominiums and chain stores are the “public use” that allowed Norwood to employ its power of eminent domain for private developer Jeffery Anderson, who already has $500,000,000 in assets.) Joy Gamble points out, “You could tear down any home and build commercial space and it will make more tax money.”

“Justifying the use of eminent domain based on increasing taxes or creating jobs makes any home vulnerable to eminent domain abuse and no home safe from an orange X,” said Bert Gall, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, which is representing the Gambles for free in their fight to save their home. From 1998 to 2002, the Institute for Justice documented more than 10,000 instances of threatened or actual eminent domain abuse, where eminent domain was being used for private development. Ohio alone had more than 400 instances in that five-year period.

The Gambles’ fight to save their home began in 2003 after the Norwood City Council accepted the results of an “urban renewal study” that found the Gambles’ attractive, middle-class neighborhood to be “deteriorating” and “blighted”—and thus eligible to be taken by eminent domain Suspiciously, the study was initiated and funded by developer Anderson—the same person the Council will transfer the property to for commercial development.

Gall pointed out that some of the problems listed in the blight “study,” such as dead-end roads and traffic, were the City’s doing and beyond the control of the residents. The study itself admits that not one of the 99 homes and businesses in the area were dilapidated or behind on taxes. Perhaps most worrisome of all, one of the factors the City relied on to say that the neighborhood was “deteriorating” is that it had “diversity of ownership”—essentially, everyone owned their own single-family home or business.

“If our place was ‘deteriorating’ based on everyone owning their own home, then nearly every neighborhood in America is deteriorating and could be taken,” said homeowner Carl Gamble. “Step out your front door and look to the left and look to the right and if you see a home owned by someone else, then look out.”

“The so-called blight study was a joke and a fraud,” Gall said. “It is an outrageous example of the total buyout of a city’s eminent domain power.”

Joy and Carl Gamble raised two children in the pleasant Norwood home they lived in for 35 years. After selling their family-owned grocery store in 2001, the Gambles planned to finally be able to enjoy their hard-earned retirement in the home they loved. “I had everything arranged the way I wanted for the rest of my life,” Carl reminisced.

“What really aggravates me is they are planning to build rental apartments—exactly what I have there,” objected local businessman Joe Horney. Horney owns a two-family house across from the Gambles that he rented out.

The Institute for Justice joined the Norwood fight in September 2003 and has been working with the Gambles and Joe Horney to save their properties ever since. The Institute for Justice is a public interest law firm based in Washington, D.C., that has been challenging eminent domain abuse since 1996, when it helped an elderly widow defend her Atlantic City home from being taken and given to Donald Trump for limousine parking. The Institute has scored victories in courts of law and in the court of public opinion challenging eminent domain abuse from Mississippi to Pennsylvania to Arizona. In February, it argued the Kelo case before the U.S. Supreme Court, challenging current eminent domain abuse in New London, Conn. A decision in that case will be handed down by the end of June.

The Gambles, Joe Horney and many others who faced the threat of losing their homes to line the pockets of wealthy developers did not know this could happen to them. Before an orange X appears on anyone else’s door, the Institute for Justice is encouraging people to speak up. Among other projects, the Institute is working with state and local representatives to craft legislation to protect property owners from eminent domain abuse.

“The Gambles’ case proves that eminent domain abuse can happen anywhere, to anyone,” Gall concluded.

Joy Gamble warns others, “As it stands now, the government can take your property away for a lousy shopping center. This must stop.”