City Council recently designated the Gamble House as historically significant after the owner requested a demolition permit. But the city cannot force the owner to invest in or restore the property. Because the owner, the Greenacres Foundation, will not sell to the Cincinnati Preservation Association or anyone else, the city’s options are limited to either allowing the property to deteriorate or to accepting the proposal made by the owner to invest $5 million of private resources to create an outdoor education facility and greenspace.
Another option was proposed this week: Exercise the government’s power of eminent domain to forcibly take the Gamble House.
Eminent domain is an extraordinary power that allows government to trump individual property rights in favor of a public purpose. The public purpose is generally related to roads, utilities and similar infrastructure needs. The power has been abused by government in the past, including a recent local example when Norwood attempted, and the Supreme Court rejected, the taking of homes across the street from the Rookwood Pavilion to facilitate a commercial development.
Preserving the Gamble House is about preserving the legacy of James N. Gamble, son of one of the founders of Procter & Gamble, and his civic and philanthropic contributions to the Queen City. To that end, the owner’s intention for the use of the property should be considered before government steps in and usurps the property.
Greenacres’ plan includes programs for environmental and sustainability education; greenspace for outdoor play; an educational greenhouse; preservation of outbuildings and caretaker facilities; and an endowment to ensure the property can be enjoyed for generations. All of this would be done without a single tax dollar. To lose the main house would be disappointing, but the property can still be a great community asset while honoring the contributions of the Gamble family.
The alternative – using eminent domain – means taxpayer dollars to litigate, purchase and restore the property, and ongoing operating costs. The historic designation process used by the city is questionable, making the eminent domain case a risk. The goodwill and gift of $5 million from Greenacres would be lost. The best choice we can make now is collaboration, not threats of eminent domain, in order to make the best of this situation.
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