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The Condemned

In Ohio, and across the country, homeowners are battling cities and developers conspiring to seize their property.

From his office at the top of Rookwood Tower, the seven-story, glass-and-steel building that his family’s real estate company built, Jeffrey Robert Anderson Jr., or J.R. as he is known here in Norwood, Ohio, can easily survey his empire. Directly below the tower and its 185,000 square feet of professional and financial services offices is Rookwood Pavilion, 23 acres of shopping and eating. A little farther to the left is Rookwood Commons -- not, Anderson advises me, a shopping plaza, but a "lifestyle center" containing a Gap, Ann Taylor, and 46 of the other usual suspects. This former brownfield, abandoned when a machine tool factory left Norwood, is now the premier shopping destination in Greater Cincinnati, if not all of Ohio, according to anyone around here that you ask. It’s an impressive sight, and perched high up in his well-appointed office with its sculptures and paintings and enormous glass-topped table, you might believe that this tall and fit 32-year-old with flaxen hair and bright blue eyes rules over all that he sees, or at least all that lies this side of the interstate.

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And he would, were it not for the 13-acre, triangular spit of land directly below the tower. There, under the spruce and maple trees, are the asphalt-shingled roofs of a tidy neighborhood of modest houses. Bounded by the Cincinnati city line to the east and Rookwood to the south, and cut off from the rest of Norwood by an interstate highway, these 97 homes and small businesses are glaringly out of place, a mid-20th-century remnant amid all this 21st-century glitz. They’re also in Anderson's way. He wants to expand the Rookwood complex, but he has to buy and raze all these houses first, and while most property owners have eagerly accepted his offer to buy their houses at a premium price, five have refused. And so the $125 million-plus project, known as Rookwood Exchange, slated to be under construction by now, is at a dead standstill.

But Anderson has an ace up his sleeve. At his behest, and using his money, the city of Norwood has invoked its powers of eminent domain -- the right, granted by the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, of a government to seize private property and turn it to public use -- to condemn a neighborhood and order residents out of their homes. Norwood is not the first city to act as a real estate broker whose offer can’t be refused, nor is Anderson the first businessman to benefit from this kind of largesse. A 1954 Supreme Court decision stating that the economic benefits of private development are a legitimate "public use" has forged an unholy alliance between cities strapped for cash and entrepreneurs promising economic bounty. (Anderson, for example, forecasts that Rookwood Exchange will net Norwood, a city with an annual budget of $18 million, between $1.5 and $3 million in annual taxes.) Struggling cities have placed their urban renewal hopes in the hands of developers like Anderson, who in turn rely on governments to assemble the parcels for their projects.

According to the Institute for Justice (IJ), a public-interest law firm, this is a growing trend. The institute analyzed eminent domain cases between 1998 and 2002 and found more than 10,000 instances where local governments had attempted to use a power once reserved for indisputably public projects like highways and railroads to obtain properties for private development projects such as box stores and golf courses.

No properties are off-limits -- working-class communities, ski chalets, and one-tenth of San Jose, California, have all been targets of condemnation proceedings on behalf of enterprises as varied as casinos, Costco, and the New York Times -- and no one has yet been able to thwart this newly privatized version of eminent domain. But by litigating against what it calls "eminent domain abuse," the IJ has succeeded in creating enough disarray in state courts to achieve its ultimate goal: convincing the Supreme Court to revisit the issue. This spring, for the first time in 50 years, the court will address the parameters of eminent domain, and the institute hopes the justices will rein in the private use of what the court itself once called government’s "despotic power."


"It was the day before Mother’s Day in 2002," Joy Gamble says. "They said they were going to build this fabulous project, and we were going to be gone. The roof fell in." The Gambles, who have lived in Norwood their entire lives, made an immediate decision. They weren’t selling, no matter what price Anderson was paying. "And start life all over again?" Carl adds. "We started here, we raised two kids here, we finish up here."

"Here" is the Gambles' two-story stucco home a few doors up tree-lined Atlantic Avenue from its terminus at the I-71 off-ramp. An American flag is planted by the brick front stairs, next to a hand-lettered sign that says, "IF YOU WANT THIS PROPERTY YOU SHOULD HAVE BOUGHT IT IN 1969." Inside, a hunting supply catalog sits on the coffee table, a Ronald Reagan calendar hangs from the kitchen wall, and vivid tapestries and paintings of stags and partridges give the overall effect of Field & Stream on acid. The Gambles, who won’t give their ages ("I forgot," says Carl; "I don’t tell," says Joy), appear to be in their 70s, and they speak in clipped sentences inflected with the local twang. "The first time we had contact with these people," Joy tells me, "[Anderson] wanted to meet with us. I said, 'We don’t want to sell.' He said, 'Thank you.' I said, 'You're welcome.' I hung up. Very nice." Joy goes on to list several other unsuccessful attempts, noting that Anderson’s people were always extremely polite.

But what the Gambles didn't know was that in January 2002, before he called them or any of their neighbors, Anderson had asked the City Council to undertake an urban renewal study, the prerequisite to condemning properties. "I figured we wouldn’t have to go through with it," Anderson says. "Just pass the urban renewal study and get things rolling." When he built Rookwood Tower back in 1997, Anderson had easily convinced the city to authorize such a study -- although he was ultimately able to assemble the necessary properties on his own. But in 2003, three years after he was indicted for corruption, the longtime mayor -- whom Anderson had given $23,000 in campaign contributions ("an astronomical sum around here," says one city official) and an undisclosed amount toward legal fees -- resigned. The council, perhaps eager to seem less cozy with its largest private taxpayer, had earlier told Anderson "to go out and pound the doors, go assemble as many houses as possible," he says. "Once I’m completely at a stalemate, then come back and discuss urban renewal."

While Anderson was going door to door in the early summer of 2002, so was Joe Horney, a 35-year-old construction manager. Sitting on the Gambles' couch, bouncing his two-year-old daughter on his lap, Horney proudly recounts how he used an inheritance to buy a two-family house across from the Gambles when he was 21. When he heard the news, he says, "I decided to go out and meet the neighbors. I found out from a lot of people that they were perfectly happy here, they'd like to stay. So we started a petition." At first, about half of the homeowners vowed not to sell. But in September, Anderson and his partners announced their terms: They'd buy everyone's house at a 35 percent premium over its fair market value, but only if they had all the neighbors under contract. If any residents held out, the developers would ask the city to condemn those properties, and a jury would decide the price. Throughout the fall, many of Horney's erstwhile allies signed contracts. In the meantime, Anderson eliminated from his plans a 28-house section of the neighborhood in which resistance was most concentrated, and by year’s end, with 5 of the remaining 69 owners still refusing to sell, Anderson had his stalemate -- in no small part, as it turns out, because condemnation had been in the air all along. "Where I made my decision is when eminent domain was threatened from day one," says Horney. "Once they threatened my rights, my decision was made."

The City Council authorized the urban renewal study, which Anderson paid for, in April 2003. Citing certain facts -- small driveways, narrow streets, lots that don't conform to current zoning regulations, houses that are more than 40 years old, a neighborhood subject to all the light and noise and traffic that progress (much of it Rookwood-related) has brought -- the study declared the neighborhood blighted and thus eligible to be seized, emptied, and razed.

Standing in the Gambles' tranquil back yard, with its lilacs and bird feeders, it's hard to understand how anyone could think this property was blighted. Horney points out that by the study's criteria, nearly anyone's home could be taken by the government. "You could call the White House blighted because it's over 40 years old, it's got a lack of parking, it's surrounded by commercial development. I'm sure there is noise. If you tore it down and put in a big office building, certainly it would generate more taxes than Mr. Bush living there." The City Council proceeded to condemn the five properties not under contract with Anderson. According to Mayor Tom Williams, they took this action reluctantly, partly to secure tax revenues for the city. "I was a cop for 34 years, got shot once and shot people twice," Williams says. "It's the same with this thing. You hate to pull the trigger, but sometimes it’s a necessity."

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