Texas Developer Files Lawsuits To Bulldoze Freedom of the Press
Back in June we told you about a case in Clarksville, Tenn., where a pair of local officials took members of a grassroots eminent domain group to court for pointing out the strong relationship between the local government and developers. Now comes another case where those who have threatened eminent domain have gone after those who have taken positions opposing them. This one concerns a Texas developer who is suing a journalist who wrote a book on eminent domain, her publisher, and, most absurdly, a law professor who wrote a blurb for the book's cover, and the Institute for Justice's Texas Chapter has come to their defense. The developer has sued a number of others who have written pieces related to the book, too. Dallas, Texas—In perhaps the most striking example of a disturbing national trend, Dallas developer H. Walker Royall has launched a lawsuit spree to silence any media or public affairs commentator who dares expose his attempted abuse of eminent domain. Similar suits have been filed in Tennessee, Missouri and elsewhere by developers and governments looking to silence critics of eminent domain for private gain. Royall worked with the city of Freeport, Texas, to try to condemn a generations-old shrimp business owned by the Gore family to make way for a luxury marina. The project became the subject of the book, Bulldozed: “Kelo,” Eminent Domain, and the American Lust for Land, authored by veteran legal journalist Carla Main. Bulldozed tells the story of Freeport’s plan to take the Gores’ waterfront property for Royall’s luxury marina development project. Only hours after the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Kelo v. City of New London eminent domain abuse decision, the city instructed its attorneys to redouble their efforts to seize the Gore family business. Bulldozed unravels why, after years of litigation, the threat of condemnation continues to hang over the Gores. The book was reviewed in many newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal, was nominated for the Texas Historical Commission’s annual T.R. Fehrenbach Book Award and it won a highly competitive independent press award for political science writing. After journalist Main wrote her book exposing the Freeport land grab, Royall sued her as well as her publisher, Encounter Books, for defamation. He even sued nationally renowned Law Professor Richard Epstein who wrote a blurb for the book’s dust jacket. When someone reviewed the book, he sued him. When two newspapers published that review, he sued them. Today (Wednesday, December 10, 2008), the Institute for Justice Texas Chapter (IJ-TX) filed a notice of appearance with the Dallas County District Court in order to vindicate the right of author Main, her publisher and Professor Epstein to freely debate eminent domain abuse. “Rather than try to defend his indefensible effort to have the government take someone’s land for his private development project, H. Walker Royall sues and sues and sues and sues,” said Matt Miller, executive director of the Institute for Justice Texas Chapter, which is defending the book’s author, the publisher and law professor Epstein. This is not Royall's only series of suits against his opponents. A few months back, he also sued Wright Gore, the property owner in Freeport, Texas, who led efforts to oppose eminent domain abuse and complained about Royall's tactics. Read the entire press release at IJ's site.
Developer pulls out of Baldwin Park!Months rushing to declare Baldwin Park blighted before last June's vote on Prop. 98, the project's developer has pulled out for economic reasons. From the California Alliance to Protect Private Property Rights: Today, property owners in Baldwin Park are celebrating! For the past two years, the City of Baldwin Park was working with a controversial developer to seize over 200 homes and 300 businesses by eminent domain - an area of over 125 football fields! Their fight was widely reported during the Prop. 98 campaign, a property rights ballot measure that had it won voter approval would have protected all private property from eminent domain abuse. Unlike some other communities, these property owners are fortunate that that their homes and businesses were not demolished before the developer pulled out of the project. "As a community, we need to work together to encourage new job creation but not at the expense of property owners. Economic revitalization does not require the use of eminent domain to seize homes and small businesses from unwilling sellers." said Cruz Baca Sembello, of CARA, a local property owners organization. "With this ugly chapter in our city's history over, our community can now heal and work together to improve our quality of life." There's more at CAPPPR's website and from the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.
Clarksville Development Plan Piques the Interest of DOJ and HUDLast night, IJ Director of Community Organization Christina Walsh sat on a panel with the local NAACP presidnet, the director of the Clarksville Urban Resource Center, and a representative from the Department of Justice at forum to allow Clarksville citizens to speak out about the city's downtown development plan and the ways in which the city has treated those threatened by eminent domain. At least three representatives from the Department of Housing & Urban Development attended the forum. According to Christina Walsh, all the government officials were keenly interested in hearing what the people had to say about the plan and about the ways in which their elected officials have been treating property owners. With the possibility that Clarksville would have applied for federal HUD funds in the redevelopment project, Walsh reminded those in attendance that as long as the Bond amendment is still in the HUD appropriations bill, federal funds cannot be used in projects that use eminent domain for economic development that primarily benefits private entities. "Clearly, the confluence of bad law and politically connected developers here does not bode well for the citizens of Clarksville, who have been virtually abandoned by the very political officials they elected to represent their best interests," said Walsh. "Local governments very often disguise their intentions of transferring perfectly fine properties to private developers, declaring so-called 'blight removal,' 'urban renewal,' or 'slum clearance' as the justification for eminent domain. "...[T]hey hide behind this 'public use' concept in their quest to acquire property for the private use of developers.” For more on the testimony federal officials heard last night, Clarksville Online has more information as does the local Leaf-Chronicle.
A Tale of Two Constitutional AmendmentsNovember 4 was a good night for property rights in the states of Nevada and Louisiana. Due to Nevada's requirement that constitutional amendments be voted on twice before becoming law, this was the second vote on Ballot Question 2, a citizen initiative to amend the state's constitution, and voters supported it overwhelmingly with 61% approving. The amendment tightens the state's definition of "public use": Public use shall not include the direct or indirect transfer of any interest in property taken in an eminent domain proceeding from one private party to another private party. In all eminent domain actions, the government shall have the burden to prove public use. With this second vote of approval, Ballot Question 2 amends the state constitution. However, two years from now, Nevadans will vote on Joint Assembly Resolution 3, another similar but weaker constitutional amendment. Should that pass, it would replace the constitutional amendment just approved by voters earlier this month. For more on Nevada's reform, check out the 50 State Report Card. In Louisiana, voters came face to face with an effort to roll back reforms passed just two years ago and narrowly defeated the measure. In 2006, voters ratified two constitutional amendments. The first prohibited the taking of private property for private use, preventing local governments from taking property in order to generate taxes or jobs. The second constitutional amendment required local governments to offer any condemned property it no longer needs back to its original owners before selling it to another private party. This year, Constitutional Amendment 6, the "Blighted Properties Act," would have provided an exception to 2006's second amendment. The "Blighted Properties Act" would have taken away the right of first refusal for property owners whose property had been taken for the purposes of "blight removal" but is no longer needed by local governments. With only 49% approving Amendment 6, a majority of Louisianans chose to protect their property rights by voting no.
Inside Baltimore "Negotiations"A Daily Record piece on new plans for Baltimore's Charles North redevelopment provides some very interesting insight into how redevelopment officials treat property owners in so-called negotiations prior to invoking eminent domain. First, some background. The Baltimore City Council created the Charles North Urban Renewal Plan in 1982; the plan placed 20 properties north of Penn Station under the cloud of eminent domain, but not even that was enough to lure private investment into the area. Five years ago, after officials at the Baltimore Development Corporation said they had no interest in acquiring properties if there were private redevelopment plans, the threatened property owners requested that their properties be taken off the acquisition list, since they all had their own plans to redevelop their properties. Despite the private plans, the city went ahead, amending the redevelopment plan and going out to search for developer proposals. One property owner had a private investment lined up, while another was already restoring his property. Even though the city had no plan, it tried to seize a few properties via "quick-take" (immediate seizure without a hearing and only 10 days for property owners to protest). The city lost in court. So back to the Daily Record's article on the new Charles North plan. Joseph McNeely, executive director of the Central Baltimore Partnership, a public-private coalition that commissioned the new Charles North plan says he's been negotiating with property owners over implementing the plan. This is how he negotiates: “We’ve had meetings on 60 properties where we say, you can’t sit on properties in this neighborhood," said McNeely. "If you don’t get behind the development plan, we’re going to be your enemy. If you’re willing to invest, we’ll be your best friend. … We’re not going to take it anymore. You can’t speculate here to our detriment.”
The latest New Jersey blight designation to get thrown outLast week, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Walter Barisonek ruled that Union Township's business district was not blighted, contrary to the township's designation of the area as such. From the Star-Ledger: Barisonek said the process the township used to designate Union Center as a redevelopment area was tainted by a conflict of interest involving Committeeman Joseph Florio and an attorney hired by the municipality. Florio is also a member of the planning board but recused himself from voting on the matter. However, both he and the attorney offered opinions at a public hearing, pushing the planning board toward the redevelopment designation, the judge said. "A damaged sidewalk, excessive signage, chipping paint ... how is that dilapidated? How is that blight?" Barisonek said from the bench in Elizabeth in a decision that took an hour and a half. "This is why all of this is subjective. "There must be overall deterioration," said Barisonek. "More profitable use is not a reason for redevelopment." Unsurprisingly, the mayor is upset with the property owners who dared to defend their property rights in court.
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