Pittsburgh City Council Abuses Government’s Eminent Domain Power

John Kramer
John Kramer · August 2, 1999

Washington, D.C.-Misusing government power to transfer private property from one business to another, Pittsburgh’s City Council today authorized the condemnation of the 87-year-old Pittsburgh Wool Company and four other small businesses to give to the H.J. Heinz Company. The vote will speed the way for the Heinz-directed but government-imposed destruction of five businesses. The Heinz Company wants to construct a warehouse for its Pittsburgh manufacturing facility on the site. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, the vote demonstrates yet another abuse of eminent domain-the government power to condemn private property.

“The Constitution allows government to take property for public use,” explained Dana Berliner, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm located in Washington D.C. that has offered to represent the Pittsburgh Wool Company in any court proceeding for free. The Institute last year won a similar case on behalf of a widow whose property was sought by Donald Trump and a New Jersey government agency. “Doing a favor for a politically connected private company is not what the founding fathers had in mind.”

Despite protestations last Wednesday that condemnation of the property would be a “last resort,” it took less than a week for the council to come to a final vote. The resolution allows Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to acquire the property, a euphemistic way of saying that the city will try to get the businesses to go willingly, but if not, it will move them by force. The next step will be a URA vote to use the power of eminent domain.

Roy and Jeff Kumer own and operate the Wool Company, the last “wool pulling” business in the Northeast. They also lease space to four small businesses, including one (American Dispatch) that was recognized as one of Pittsburgh’s fastest-growing businesses.

This is not the first time that the Pittsburgh Wool Company has found itself in the way of a Heinz expansion. But the last time, 40 years ago, Heinz privately approached Roy Kumer, rather than government officials, to reach an agreement. As a result of that agreement, Pittsburgh Wool Company moved from its previous location to this one. This time, however, Heinz decided it would be easier to have the city simply condemn the property rather than to negotiate directly with the Kumer family.

And this time, the Wool Company has no place to move. Wool pulling requires a specific and unusual building, and there are no similar buildings left in Pittsburgh. The company’s machinery, built and designed by the Kumers, is integrated into the building and cannot be moved.

“If we lose this building, we will be out of the wool pulling business forever,” explained Jeff Kumer, president of Pittsburgh Wool. His tenants also have not found locations where they could relocate.

Institute for Justice President Chip Mellor said, “The power to condemn private property is one of government’s most fearsome powers. When that power is used to transfer property from one private party to another, abuse is inevitable.”