What a Difference A Year Makes! One Year After Kelo Decision Legislatures Nationwide Pass Reform
By Steven Anderson
IJ Senior Attorney Dana Berliner speaks to media at the launch of seven new Castle Coalition publications.
The one-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s now-infamous Kelo decision brought many milestones for the Castle Coalition—IJ’s national grassroots network of individuals fighting eminent domain abuse. In the wake of this unconscionable decision, the Castle Coalition has only fought harder and experienced unprecedented growth—in members, in personnel and in successes—over the past year.
There is no better indication of the Castle Coalition’s significance in the debate over eminent domain abuse than the successes we helped home owners earn in more than half of the state legislatures that met post-Kelo. Seizing on the opportunity at hand—to cabin off at the state level the High Court’s blessing of nearly unrestrained government power—the Castle Coalition launched an unprecedented effort in both size and scope; the Castle Coalition worked at one level or another with nearly every single state legislature and the U.S. Congress to ensure statutory law protects what the U.S. Supreme Court abandoned.
The Castle Coalition hired three new staff, including one attorney to serve as legislative counsel. Our attorneys testified before legislative committees in 19 states as well as the U.S. Congress. We provided written testimony, statements or briefings in 12 other states and debated the issue in dozens of settings. Supporting that outreach, the CastleCoalition.org website was completely redesigned and became the go-to site for fighting eminent domain abuse.
The fruits of this effort were significant reforms protecting property owners. Forty-five states considered legislation to reform their eminent domain practices. Twenty-eight enacted laws curbing the abuse of eminent domain for private use. (Some states, like Florida, passed sweeping and very effective reforms while a few, like Delaware, passed reforms that were more symbolic than substantive.) In 14 states, new laws have made it (or will make it, after they are approved by voters) either impossible or extremely difficult to use bogus “blight” designations to take ordinary homes and businesses for private development. Given that the vast majority of eminent domain abuses occur through the use of those designations, that is very meaningful reform. And at the federal level, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the Private Property Rights Protection Act of 2005 in November. More work remains to be done in the Senate where reform remains stalled.
All of these amount to pretty remarkable results for one year of work by an organization that (by its mission and design) rarely engages in lobbying.
IJ President and General Counsel Chip Mellor presents Mayor Curt Pringle with the Cornerstone Award for not using eminent domain in redevelopment projects in Anaheim, Calif.
IJ maintained the terms of the debate on the issue of eminent domain through our original research reports and publications. Building on Dana Berliner’s groundbreaking work, Public Power, Private Gain, the Castle Coalition remains the only national organization providing information on the widespread abuse of eminent domain with such regularity and depth. In the week leading up to the anniversary, for instance, we released seven new reports including Dana’s Opening the Floodgates: Eminent Domain Abuse in the Post-Kelo World. This report documented a marked increase in the threatened use of eminent domain for private development after Kelo. Floodgates documents that in just the past year, more than 5,700 properties nationwide have been threatened or taken with eminent domain for private development—more than triple the annual abuse we had earlier documented over a five-year period.
We also issued a number of smaller works. One, Myths and Realities of Eminent Domain Abuse, takes the talking points of eminent domain abusers and methodically debunks each one of them. Redevelopment Wrecks: 20 Failed Projects Involving Eminent Domain Abuse details projects nationwide that used eminent domain for private development purposes, but never lived up to expectations.
One of the most popular features on our website, CastleCoalition.org, is the Eminent Domain Abuse Survival Guide, which provides the tips and techniques used by home and small business owners to protect their property outside the courtroom. We realized, however, that we were not reaching as many people as possible, because the Survival Guide was only available online. (Senior citizens and the poor, who are especially targeted for eminent domain abuse, often do not have Internet access.) To mitigate that problem, we completely revised and updated the Survival Guide in a print edition to include even more strategies, particularly as they relate to legislative change. What’s more, the back cover even doubles as a sign for use at rallies or meetings.
Since Kelo, non-traditional alliances have emerged to lobby for eminent domain reform. A panel of leaders from those organizations spoke at this year’s Castle Coalition conference. Castle Coalition Coordinator Steven Anderson (below) discusses ways of stopping eminent domain abuse.
To assist those who want to know what reform was passed or rejected by legislators in their state, we issued a summary of legislative activity on eminent domain since Kelo. The publication notes all the changes made in 28 states—and all the changes that still remain necessary. The summary includes a map so anyone can easily see the level of protection his or her state offers upon the completion of its legislative session.
But June was not all about the written word. The Castle Coalition also hosted its fifth annual national conference in our new hometown of Arlington, Va. This year’s event was unlike any we have had before; the attendance tripled that of any of our previous conferences and we completely revamped the agenda. The changes were made, in part, because of the achievements of our regional conferences—a half-dozen in all, held in sites from New Jersey to California, since the Kelo decision. We were pleased to hear addresses from BB&T CEO John Allison and Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle—both of whom also received the Cornerstone Award, given to individuals who take strong stands against the abuse of eminent domain.
Participants also heard a number of panel discussions, featuring members of the media, activists and legislators. Among our panelists were Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau, Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, and Reverend Brenda Girton-Mitchell, associate general secretary of public policy for the National Council of Churches—each of whom guided property owners on how to work with the local chapters of their organizations. Susette Kelo gave a rousing keynote speech on Saturday evening and our intensive activist workshop took place Sunday morning. It was, by all accounts, the most successful conference yet.
Although we’ve had a significant amount of good news since June 2005, the issue of eminent domain abuse remains a crucial one, one we will strive to keep in the headlines and in the legislatures. And until every person’s home is truly his or her castle, we’ll continue the pressure as we always have—through activism, training and cutting-edge research.Steven Anderson is the Castle Coalition coordinator.