Land Grabbers Attack Free Speech

In this morning’s Washington Post, columnist George Will brings to light a particularly egregious example of politically-connected developers abusing the legal system to silence their land-grab critics:

When Kelo was decided, H. Walker Royall, a Dallas developer, already had designs on some property that for more than a decade has belonged to the Gore family shrimping business in coastal Freeport. In 2003, Royall signed an agreement with that city’s government to build a yacht marina, hotel and condominiums using property the city would seize by eminent domain.

The day after the Supreme Court made its Kelo mistake, Freeport intensified its pressure against the Gores, whose stout resistance caught the gimlet eye of Carla Main. An experienced journalist (former associate editor of the National Law Journal, she has written for the Wall Street Journal, National Review and numerous other publications), Main has recounted the case in her book “Bulldozed: ‘Kelo,’ Eminent Domain and the American Lust for Land.” Her thesis is that many “takings” of property for economic development are taking a terrible toll on the rights of everyday Americans.

In October 2008, Royall sued Main and her publisher (Encounter Books), seeking monetary damages and a ban on further production and distribution of the book. He also sued the Galveston newspaper that reviewed the book and the reviewer. A judge dismissed, on jurisdictional grounds, Royall’s suit against Richard Epstein, professor of law at the University of Chicago and New York University, whose offense was a dust-jacket endorsement of the book as a report on an “unholy alliance” between government and a private interest.

Royall’s defamation suit against Main appears ridiculous on its face, and his support for redevelopment takings is countered by a growing body of research. Moreover, Royall’s development plan was finalized before the state had even acquired the affected property, which is generally a good indication that the “economic redevelopment” in question is really just a transfer of wealth from legitimate property owners to the politically-connected developer. As I have noted in the past, these pretextual takings are recipes for economic and fiscal disaster–benefiting a few government officials and rent-seeking developers, but harming taxpayers, entrepreneurs, and homeowners.

Unfortunately, the silence-through-litigation strategy being employed by Royall has become increasingly common in the years following Kelo. The Institute for Justice, in its backgrounder on Royall v. Main, mentions the following cases:

In Clarksville, Tenn., when the city council considered a redevelopment plan that allowed the use of eminent domain for private development, a group of home and business owners formed the Clarksville Property Rights Coalition (CPRC).  Because the group dared to speak out against the project in an advertisement in a local newspaper, a member of the Clarksville city council and a member of the city’s Downtown District Partnership filed a frivolous libel lawsuit against the CPRC and demanded the group pay them $500,000. The Institute for Justice is defending the CPRC in this suit.

In Renton, Wash., eminent domain activist Inez Peterson led a successful fight against a blight designation—which would have enabled the use of eminent domain—that the city sought to place on the Renton Highlands neighborhood.  Prominent Renton developers Denny and Bernadene Dochnahl sued Peterson for various statements she made about them, such as when Peterson in an email called Ms. Dochnahl “a haughty and proud Pharisee.”

In St. Louis, the city government itself is trying to shut down a protest of its abuse of eminent domain.  Jim Roos owns well-maintained property that, as a public service, houses the urban poor.  The government has slated the property to be taken by eminent domain because of its location in a redevelopment area.  Roos decided to fight back with free speech.  On the side of one of his buildings, he placed a five-story-high mural that called for the city to “End Eminent Domain Abuse.”  Employing the city’s restrictive sign code, St. Louis is now trying to force Jim to remove the mural. The Institute for Justice is fighting to save the mural in litigation in federal court.

(Photo by Asa Gauen for IJ)