Alarm co. owner challenges eminent domain laws

Monday, January 1, 2007

PORT CHESTER, N.Y.--USA Central Station Alarm Corp. president Bart Didden is hoping that the U.S. Supreme Court will agree to hear an eminent domain lawsuit he's involved in, and he's secured the assistance of the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice.
According to Didden, in 2003 he was approached by a private developer about property he owned here, which adjoined USA Central's Port Chester office property. (USA Central also has offices in Milford, Conn., and St. Paul, Minn.) The adjoining property lay within a redevelopment area of the village. Didden said he planned to eventually use the property to expand his alarm business, but in the meantime, had "redeveloped it for another use as a CVS drug store."
Didden said the developer approached him and said the "'mayor of the village sent me to have a meeting with you.' He told me he wanted to be a 50-50 percent owner in my [CVS] business or I could pay him $800,000." The developer told Didden he would take the property by eminent domain if he did not agree to the terms.
Didden refused and the next day the village condemned the property. Since then, Didden has lost two court battles: in the Federal District Court in White Plains, N.Y., in 2004, and an appeal in the Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City in April 2006.
"The first court characterized it as a business negotiation. I don't see how there was much negotiation: Either I pay or I lose," Didden said.
Dana Berliner, senior attorney for the Institute for Justice, calls it attempted extortion. She said the Institute decided to take on the case because it "involves an allegation of such shocking conduct ... it's a good case to try to draw the court's attention to the issue of eminent domain abuse again." This is an issue left open by a U.S. Supreme Court decision litigated by the Institute called Kelo v. City of New London, she said. In that case, the court allowed a private developer to claim private property via eminent domain.
The Institute wants the court to take this opportunity to clarify that "lower courts do not read Kelo to completely eliminate judicial review" of eminent domain abuses and to look at an issue that was not brought up in the Kelo case, that "condemnation [taking property by eminent domain] motivated by private purpose is still unconstitutional."
What are the chances that the U.S. Supreme Court will agree to look at the case? "No one ever knows," Berliner said. "They only take one percent of the cases that ask for review ... if they want to do a follow-up to Kelo, this is a good one to do that."
A prominent figure in the security industry, Didden is a past president of the National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association who has been active in a number of other industry committees and groups. "It's because this alarm company is as successful as it is that I'm able to fund the army of attorneys that this issue has cost me," he said. "Now, it's more about principle, doing what's right and fixing this issue, because [eminent domain laws] are a license to steal," he said.