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Might Makes Blight: Eminent Domain v. Free Speech in Clarksville, Tennessee

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Might Makes Blight: Eminent Domain v. Free Speech in Clarksville, Tennessee Thanksgiving has come and gone. But reasons to be cheerful/thankful still abound. For instance, say yay for free speech. Which is always under attack by somebody somewhere.

Hop the last train to Clarksville, Tennessee. A libel suit could meet you at the station. Launched by pols with development interests in neighborhoods targeted for eminent domain.

Eminent domain is the constitutional right of government to take private property for public use. In the past public use meant the building of schools, bridges, hospitals, etc. But now local governments, working hand in hand with developers, seize whole neighborhoods of modest homes and small businesses to clear the way for upscale private development projects juiced with public money and tax breaks. A projected increase in property tax revenues is the "public use" justification. As is potential job creation.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court sped the plow of eminent domain abuse with its infamous decision re Kelo v. City of New London. After roughly eight years of resisting a state-powered land grab, the blue collar neighborhood of Fort Trumbull in New London, Connecticut was flattened by the Court's decision to let states continue to define private development as public use. Thankfully (that being the theme here) the decision touched off a public wave of revulsion (opinion polls ran from 65% to 97% against) and heightened awareness about the erosion of property rights. It also produced broad anti eminent domain coalitions ranging the political spectrum from progressives to libertarians. More property owners resisted, more challenges were launched, and old and new media focused on eminent domain abuse across the nation. Twas a nightmare for land-grabbing pols, the developers who love them, and urban master planners. Non-profit profiteers of public funded development deals were none too happy either.

With public outcry ringing in their ears, numerous state governments embraced eminent domain reforms. Some even real. At the federal level the Private Property Rights Protection Act passed. Allowing federal agencies to withhold economic development funds from states, counties, and cities that use public money on development projects jacked by eminent domain. The federal cash crash lasts for two fiscal years, after a court of "competent jurisdiction" rules that eminent domain abuse has occurred.

Welcome to Blightville

Clarksville, in Montgomery County, Tennessee, is the 5th largest city in the state. Fort Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne, is adjacent. Two square miles of downtown Clarksville, an area containing several neighborhoods, 1825 homes and small businesses plus campus buildings owned by Austin Peay State University, are slated for a remake. The new do is laid out in the Clarksville Center Redevelopment Plan (CCRP). The CCRP area is within Ward 6, the city's only major minority ward. Many residents are elderly and/or low income.

Mayor Johnny Piper and Clarksville's Downtown District Partnership are big on The Plan. As is the City Council. In late 2007, the council passed an ordinance declaring the CCRP area "blighted". (Excepting state university property.) An "assemblage clause" was included in the ordinance. Quoting an 11/21/08 article from Clarksville Online*, the clause allows "eminent domain to be used in 'assembling' a group of properties to be transferred to private developers who would 'maximize' the potential of the land involved."

The city council passed the ordinance quietly. Some say stealthily. When news got out, those living and doing business within the targeted area didn't mourn-- they organized. Public protest meetings were packed and continue to be so. Standing room only. Crowds in the halls. People waving signs saying "Welcome to Blightville". A group of home and business owners formed the Clarksville Property Rights Coalition (CPRC). The CPRC ran an ad in a local paper pointing out that city council member Richard Swift and Wayne Wilkinson of the Downtown District Partnership have development interests in the blight zone. The ad also declared, "This Redevelopment Plan is of the developers, by the developers, and for the developers."

Though this sounds merely like strong criticism-- mild in comparison to say, dung flung in presidential races-- council guy Swift and district guy Wilkinson filed a libel suit. Which is being called a SLAPP suit. As in: Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. SLAPP suits are frivolous. The real point is to silence political opponents by entangling them in lengthy, costly legal battles. According to the Institute for Justice, the public interest law firm representing the CPRC, there's a growing trend of SLAPP suits being used against home and business owners who resist being dispossessed by eminent domain in the name of economic development.

The libertarian Institute for Justice (IJ) has been at the forefront of numerous property rights battles. Including Kelo v. City of New London. In Clarksville, mighty IJ is standing up for free speech rights as well. The existence of IJ is definitely a reason to be cheerful/thankful.

In early November, the mayor of Montgomery County informed Clarksville Mayor Johnny Piper and the Downtown District Partnership that The Plan, in its current hot potato form, won't be receiving county support. In late November, reps from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD Baby HUD) came to Clarksville to attend a fact-finding meeting and public forum about The Plan. IJ was also on hand. The Feds got a heads-up about The Plan thanks to Clarksville's Urban Resource Center and the local NAACP.

The national NAACP (along with AARP and other groups) filed an amicus brief in the Kelo case on behalf of Fort Trumbull's property owners. Eminent domain has oft been used to "maximize the potential" of minority neighborhoods. Back in the day, author James Baldwin called urban renewal "Negro removal".

The result of the DOJ and HUD visit to Clarksville isn't yet known. Walter Atkinson, Senior Conciliation Specialist with the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service (Southeast Region IV) says he came to Clarksville to "listen and observe". Helping avert "litigation" was also on his to-do list. (He didn't say by whom.) Meanwhile, the SLAPP suit against the Clarksville Property Rights Coalition is languishing in the limbo of local doo wah diddy. To date, a dismissal of the suit has been rescinded and a judge has had to recuse himself.

One final cheerful/thankful thing. The biggest and best. Hip hooray for people, in Clarksville and other places, who fight for their right not to blighted by government gone wild and greed masquerading as public good.

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
Mondo QT

"Please Do Not Be Frightened [original emphasis] into believing what the Clarksville Property Rights Coalition is misrepresenting about the plan. The city of Clarksville has No Intentions of taking your property. The redevelopment plan ordinance actually makes it Harder For Any Government To Exercise Eminent Domain."

Letter from Mayor Johnny Piper to property owners within the CCRP blight area, 02/04/08

"And I must go, oh no no no no!" Take The Last Train To Clarksville, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, 1966

* Justice Department, HUD, hear citizen concerns on development, urban renewal, Christine Anne Piesyk, Clarksville, TN Online, 11/21/08

Sources include but are not limited to:

A Big Free Speech Case In Clarksville,, 07/29/08

Community Meeting to Explain Method Behind the Madness of Blight, Christine Anne Piesyk, Clarksville Online, 12/08/07

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After several years of NYC go-go dancing and wacky radical fun (including a trip to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago) Carola Von H. became a No Wave band leader and Mail Artist. Picking up change as a free lance writer. Her pen ranged (more...)

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