CHICAGO — Ohio's highest court ruled Wednesday that cities could not use eminent domain to seize private property in order to use the land for economic development.
In 2002, the working-class Cincinnati suburb of Norwood demanded that dozens of property and business owners sell off their holdings in order to turn a neighborhood of about 70 middle-class homes into a $125-million retail and office complex. The development was expected to bring in millions of dollars in tax revenue.
The state's lower courts had upheld Norwood's claim to obtain the property via eminent domain, but three landowners petitioned the Ohio Supreme Court.
Although economic issues can be considered in eminent domain cases, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that they could not be the only reason to take private property from owners.
"I feel vindicated ... and I can't wait to move back home," Joy Gamble said. She and her husband, Carl, were forced to leave their home in February 2005. Until recently, they had been living in the basement of their daughter's Kentucky home.
"It's our home. No one should be forced to sell just because a city says a neighborhood isn't rich enough to stay," Gamble said.
The ruling was the first from a state high court since the U.S. Supreme Court issued a controversial eminent domain decision last summer.
In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court gave governments the right to seize private property and transfer it to another private owner in the interest of economic development.
After the decision, cities and commercial developers sprinted to launch new projects, while legislators across the country drafted measures to protect private property owners.
Eminent domain usually is employed when governments want to build highways, bridges or public buildings.
"It's a complete vindication for every home and business owner in the state of Ohio," said Dana Berliner, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice who represented the plaintiffs.
"Some of the justification the city gave was that the area was 'deteriorating' because different people owned different houses, and there were cul-de-sacs in neighborhoods, and people had to back out of their driveways," Berliner said. "And what the Ohio high court said is that cities cannot use standards for eminent domain that are so vague that they could apply anywhere."