If there’s one guaranteed method to raise the collective blood pressure of a community, it’s invoking the controversial land grab practice known as eminent domain. The right of local government to seize private property if they argue it will benefit the greater good (with increased tax revenue or a better economy) has been debated for decades.
Though property owners are compensated, not everyone is willing to stick a price tag on their memories. Nor are the goals of development always as admirable or necessary as they’re claimed to be. Here are a few infamous cases of people who found themselves displaced for less-than-sensible reasons.
1. The Golf Course Manager Needs Your House
There is no shortage of golf courses in West Palm Beach, Florida, which is why John and Wendy Zamecnik were particularly frustrated that the county had targeted their neighborhood for a facelift. In the mid-1980s, over 300 homes were purchased to make way for a new course. Most families sold and moved willingly; the Zamecniks were one of a handful who did not. They watched as the community of empty houses became dilapidated and ransacked while their own land values plummeted. At one point, their home was earmarked to be the residence of the golf course’s manager. According to the Sun-Sentinel, protracted legal battles culminated in the couple being forced out of their home in 2002. The postscript? The golf course was never built.
2. The Church That Never Had a Prayer
Governments can often use some disingenuous tactics to invoke eminent domain, especially when they’re trying to displace non-taxable religious organizations—including the one organized by Reverend Fred Jenkins, who had ambitious plans for his North Hempstead, N.Y. church, St. Luke’s. In 1997, Jenkins spent a considerable sum buying a “fixer-upper” property and sorting out the zoning paperwork so he could move his congregation out of a modest basement location. According to the Christian Science Monitor, no one had told Jenkins the property had been tagged as a redevelopment site three years prior. He had been allowed to spend money for renovations and other plans that would be useless. Worse, the Town offered him $50,000 less than he’d paid for it, leaving him with a mortgage even after the church was destroyed.
3. The Judge with Conflicting Interests
Nevada is often ground zero for cases involving casino expansion. When John Pappas died and left rental property to his widow, Carol Pappas, she and her sons expected to continue operating their small strip mall on the land. But in 1994, Las Vegas demanded Pappas turn it over so they could build a parking garage as part of a redevelopment. She refused; Vegas sued. Presiding Judge Stephen Huffaker ruled that the city could begin bulldozing. But according to the Los Angeles Times, Huffaker failed to mention he had financial ties to the redevelopment plan by owning shares in a local casino. The Pappas family took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court and eventually settled with the city for $4.5 million.
4. Condemned—and Billed for a New Sidewalk
In the late 1990s, Bill Brody purchased and renovated four buildings in Port Chester, N.Y. that housed 10 small business shingles. When the city made a deal with a developer to reinvigorate the downtown area, they failed to formally inform Brody he had only 30 days to lodge a complaint; the law stipulated that a newspaper notice (that he never saw) was enough. Unaware of the time limit, Brody was helpless as the village first seized and then demolished his buildings—but not before billing him $40,000 to improve the sidewalk. Worse, they took over a year to compensate him while, according to the New York Times, collecting rent from his tenants.
The good news? Brody eventually won his litigation against the city. The bad? It took over a decade.
5. Death and Taxes
The quagmire of bureaucracy can sometimes blind officials to the very personal consequences of ushering a family out of their home. In Hurst, Texas, the prospect of a large shopping mall meant over 100 houses would need to be vacated and demolished in 1997. Leonard Prohs was among 10 homeowners trying to hold out, though he requested an extension for a very valid reason: His wife was in an area hospital dying of brain cancer. The court refused his request. According to the Free-Lance Star, Prohs had to leave his wife’s bedside in order to move his belongings out. The land was eventually occupied by, among other stores, a Pet Smart and a Starbucks.
6. Something Smells
In the early 1990s, residents near a sewage treatment plant in Bremerton, Wash. successfully petitioned the city to do something about the smell. The city began condemnation proceedings on dozens of properties nearby, claiming that the land would be used, according to the Kitsap Sun, to "create an odor easement." But as soon as their eminent domain invocation was completed, the paper reported that Bremerton did an about-face and instead sold the land to a car dealership for nearly $2 million—without doing a single thing about the odor.
7. Only a One-Car Garage?
When Lakewood, Ohio discovered their waterfront properties were appealing to condominium developers, they began to plot the exodus of hundreds of residents out of the area. But with occupants resisting, the city had to come up with a way to classify their area as “blighted,” or run down. Because the homes and apartments were well-maintained, Lakewood opted for higher standards: homes were earmarked for seizure because “blighted” was defined to mean anything less than a two-car garage, three bedrooms, and central air conditioning. The entire plan was distasteful enough that, according to a 2003 CBS News report, citizens eventually voted the acting mayor out of office.