2/16/2007

Atlanta drops eminent domain battle: Business Week, 2/6/07

By Greg Bluestein

It didn't take long for outrage over Mark and Regina Meeks' story to take root all across Georgia.

After officials in the suburban Atlanta city of Stockbridge tried to condemn the Meeks' tiny flower shop and supplant it with a town center, the couple spent two years and more than $200,000 fighting the move in court.

Their battle became a symbol of Georgia's budding movement to rein in the government's power to seize property. And this week, the owners could finally claim victory: The city said it is dropping its battle to condemn Stockbridge Florist and Gifts.

"Everyone was saying, 'You can't fight City Hall. You can't do this. The government's going to win every time,'" Mark Meeks said. "But it felt like we were right all along - and we stuck to our guns. And then the judicial system bore it out."

The couple's story was one of many recited in state capitols across the nation to support claims that governments were abusing their eminent domain powers. The focus on the issue was intensified after a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling granted local governments more power to seize property for economic development.

The court's 5-4 decision in a Connecticut case did more than spur debate. It prompted state legislatures to tighten the rules that govern how local governments can seize private land. By November, voters in 13 states faced ballot issues on property rights, making eminent domain the most popular ballot issue of the year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Last year, during a debate over how to limit the government's eminent domain power, Georgia legislators repeatedly cited the floral shop.

A few weeks later, lawmakers passed a constitutional amendment that limits the government from using the powers for economic redevelopment and requires elected officials - not unelected housing authorities - to make decisions on seizing land.

On Election Day, the amendment passed with almost 83 percent support.

The law, however, was not retroactive and the Stockbridge case still dragged on in court.

Meeks had purchased the shop 23 years ago, when Stockbridge was a one-stoplight town. As the city blossomed into a booming Atlanta suburb, its leaders decided to build a retail and city government complex where the floral shop stands.

After the city condemned Meeks' land and nearby parcels, the floral shop's neighboring businesses slowly withered away. But the Meekses refused to pack up, hoisting a sign on a store window that demanded: "Protect Private Property Rights."

Their legal battle eventually worked its way to the Georgia Court of Appeals, which last week upheld a lower court's ruling that the city failed to prove the property would be used for public purposes.

Stockbridge Mayor R.G. Kelley quickly decided not to press the case farther, saying instead the city will build the development around the floral shop.

Meeks said the decision is more than a relief. It's a sign that anyone - even the owner of a tiny floral shop - can fight the government and win.

"It really restores our faith in the judicial decision," Meeks said. "Now we're going to put our lives back together."


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