Case redefines eminent domain

Terry Kinney and Terry Kinney

CINCINNATI – A handful of suburban property owners are waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide when private property can be taken under eminent domain laws for quasi-public use. By that time, their homes could be leveled.

“This is our home,” said Joy Gamble. “At least, we thought it was our home, until someone rich and powerful wants it, then it’s not your home.”

Carl and Joy Gamble have lived in their Norwood home for 35 years and raised two children there.

“The people that owned it before us died here, and they were happy,” said Carl Gamble, who ran an independent grocery and meat market until he retired. “We worked very hard for 48 years and wanted to live happily ever after. We thought we’d live the rest of our lives here.”

A Hamilton County Common Pleas judge already has ruled that the Gambles must relinquish their home to make way for office and retail construction. The ruling is being appealed.

The developer of the retail project is Rookwood Partners, headed by Norwood-based Jeffery R. Anderson, who is active in Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Kentucky. Mark Vander Laan, the developer’s attorney, says the Gambles are obstructionists who are holding up a project that most of their neighbors have accepted.

“Remember, there are 65 property owners who have entered into agreements to sell their property,” Vander Laan said. “They have been kept in limbo during this proceeding, and that’s unfortunate.”

The concept of eminent domain originally meant that government could appropriate — with compensation — private property for “public use” such as roads or bridges. In 1954, the Supreme Court expanded that to include “public purpose.”

In September, the Supreme Court agreed to look at the issue again and decide when local governments may seize people’s homes and businesses to make way for projects — such as shopping malls and hotel complexes — that produce more tax revenue.

Eminent domain often comes into play in blighted neighborhoods that residents are eager to leave. The Washington-based Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that represents land owners, says there are thousands of cases of eminent domain abuse in the nation, with the highest numbers in California, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan and Ohio.

Institute attorney Bert Gall said the Gambles’ case in Norwood is all too typical.

“The onus should never be put on someone who simply wants to hold onto their home as the villain, one who is stopping progress. When developers go into these situations, they should do what always has been done, to negotiate with property owners without the force of government behind them.

“If the government can take your home simply because it is going to generate more tax revenue, that’s wrong. Then nobody’s home is safe. A constitutional protection has been erased.”

The Supreme Court case turns on whether eminent domain allows seizures not to revitalize slums or build new roads or schools, but to raze unblighted homes and businesses to bring in more money for a town.

“It’s ironic that ‘blighted’ areas are often some of the nicest areas you will ever see,” Gall said. “Most developers don’t want to develop in an area that’s really bad. That’s why you have this farcical situation.”

The city and the developer have contended — and a judge ruled — that the city of Norwood had the right to use eminent domain to acquire the property and turn it over to a private developer as part of urban renewal. They also argued that eminent domain applied not because the area is “blighted,” but is “deteriorating.”

“They’re going to take it away from us for what it might become?” said Joy Gamble, who has her own views on what’s deteriorating.

“Everything’s deteriorating, including my health,” she said. “Maybe they’ll condemn me, too.”