Jacob Sullum

Carl and Joy Gamble, retirees who had lived in the same house in Norwood, a Cincinnati suburb, for more than three decades, did not realize their neighborhood was "deteriorating." Neither did the Norwood City Council, until it heard about developer Jeffrey Anderson's plan to build offices, condominiums, chain stores, and a parking garage there.
The prospect of new tax revenue opened the city council's eyes to the awful conditions in the Edwards Road Corridor. It turned out the area was plagued by "obsolete platting" (small front yards), "faulty street arrangements" (two cul-de-sacs), "incompatible uses" (businesses close to homes), "nonconforming uses" (homes and businesses that did not meet zoning and building requirements imposed after they were constructed), and "diversity of ownership" (homes and businesses owned by different people).

 An "urban renewal study" suggested and financed by Anderson documented these horrors, leaving the city with no choice but to condemn any property in the neighborhood whose owners refused to sell and hand it over to Anderson, who had kindly agreed to reimburse the government for any expenses entailed by that process. After more than two years of legal challenges by the Gambles and other holdouts, the Ohio Supreme Court now must decide whether there's anything wrong with this cozy arrangement.

 The conflict between the Gambles and Anderson is the most important eminent domain case since last year's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court upholding forced transfers of property for economic development. In that case, Kelo v. New London, the Court concluded that any project can count as a "public use," thereby justifying the exercise of eminent domain, if the government expects it to generate more tax revenue than the homes or businesses it replaces.

 Under that standard, there would be no need for the city of Norwood to pretend the Gambles' well-maintained middle-class neighborhood is in imminent danger of becoming a slum. It could just say, "You guys have to move, because we care about the tax base more than your property rights."

 But the Norwood City Code allows condemnations for private development only if they're necessary to eliminate "slum, blighted, or deteriorated" conditions or to fix areas deemed to be "deteriorating." No one can seriously maintain that the Edwards Road area falls into the first category (although the city initially tried), but both the trial court and the state appeals court agreed that calling the neighborhood "deteriorating" was not an "abuse of discretion."

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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