Fighting eminent domain
How to assess your risk, start rallying...and protect your home.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - It's a homeowner's worst nightmare. Under eminent domain your local government has the right to take away your land and use your property for public use.
As the future of this practice is debated in the Senate, in today's 5 Tips we're going to tell you how you can fight back against property seizure.
1. Assess your risk
Your home may be vulnerable to eminent domain if you live in an older neighborhood that's working or middle class. If you have nice views, live near the water, right off the freeway or have scenic property, you run a great risk of falling into eminent domain because developers want prime real estate.
According to the Institute for Justice residents of some states may run a higher risk of eminent domain. These states include New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri, California and Connecticut.
Chances are, if you have been living in a designated zone for years, your local government doesn't have any pressing plans for your area. After all, developers aren't going to be that interested in truly depressed areas.
2. Shake the trees
If you're sitting around on Sunday morning, reading the paper and you read about a possible project or development slated for your town. Put down the paper and pick up the phone. Call the reporter on the story. Not only can they give you information, but they'll typically be happy to take your name and number as a contact in case the story gets bigger.
Perhaps you've just heard some town gossip about the city's development plans, it may be time for you to shake some trees. Uncle Sam has no obligation to tell you if your area is in jeopardy of eminent domain. Go to your City Council's office and ask them directly about the city's plans and find out if your property has been designated as a "slum," "blighted area," "redevelopment area," in need of redevelopment, or anything similar.
If you've spotted these buzzwords, there's no time to waste if you want to save your home. Get copies of the statutes governing eminent domain in your state. These are usually available through your state's Web site. You can also look on findlaw.com.
3. Gather the troops
If you fear your home is in danger, now is the time to make noise. You must act quickly. Once your area has been designated as "blighted," the government can condemn anything in that area for 10, 20, 30 years or forever in some states. And in some states you have to challenge the designation of your area as a blighted area within 30 days, or you can never do so.
Turn up the heat. That means gathering your allies. In this case, it's your neighbors. Go door to door. Hold a neighborhood meeting to discuss the situation. Pass out flyers to all your neighbors to get them to attend. Make your message loud and clear: Your homes are in danger.
4. Make meetings a priority
Attending public meetings may instill as much excitement as eighth grade algebra. But being visible is key. When you do attend meetings, make sure you take notes. You will also be able to put documents on record at meetings.
The Institute for Justice recommends that you take photos of your property, including pictures of your kids playing on the lawn to drive home your words. You can also call on policy groups that are members of the organization called the State Policy Network. This is a network of policy and think tank leaders.
Find out if there is one in your state by going to www.spn.org. If the area is historical, try some historical preservation or history societies.
If the area contains primarily businesses, try the National Federation of Independent Businesses at www.nfib.com. If the area is primarily residential, the residents may have connections to groups that can offer support. There could be seniors organizations or societies and political groups that focus on issues related to a particular nationality or ethnicity.
5. Start rallying!
So now you're informed, you've raised awareness and you've become a bona fide pain in the butt to your local officials, it's time to think about your strategy. If you have enough people, get an assembly permit from your town and think about organizing on the steps of City Hall.
And what's a rally without any signs? Try to keep the words on the signs to a minimum. About 5 to 8 words per sign is appropriate, according to the Institute of Justice. Also consider handing out flyers.
And if you do receive a notice of Eminent Domain, don't give up hope. It's not too late to do something. Bullock says that you should get a lawyer, but that public opinion is solidly against the use of eminent domain that at some point, the courts may agree with you too.
Gerri Willis is a personal finance editor for CNN Business News and the host for Open House. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.