Pushed out and shut up: 78-year-old business fights back against eminent domain, censorship

Angelica Malik Contributor
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One business’s eminent domain nightmare has also turned into a case about protection under the First Amendment. Central Radio Company, a small business in Norfolk, Va., may soon become a victim of eminent domain, but in the meantime it has also been ordered to remove a giant banner protesting the impending seizure.

When people speak about the benefits small businesses create for society they most likely have a picture in their mind similar to Central Radio Company. Created in 1934 to provide technical products and services for the radio industry, Central Radio Company has withstood market forces, the depression, World War II and the modern age’s creative destruction to remain a successful veteran-owned small business servicing many, including the US Navy.

You don’t get much more apple pie than Central Radio Co. However, the business is struggling to keep its own property. The Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority has used eminent domain to try and seize the company’s building as well as other private, commercial and institutional buildings, to give to local Old Dominion University.

The NHRA has condemned more than 170 buildings in the Hampton Boulevard area near the university. The university has no current plans for what to do with the Central Radio Co. property and owner Bob Wilson plans to keep them from ever touching it.

After losing his eminent domain challenge in state court, Wilson took the matter to another court: public opinion. He commissioned a 375-square-foot banner to bring attention to his fight. The banner simply reads “50 YEARS ON THIS STREET, 78 YEARS IN NORFOLK, 100 WORKERS THREATENED BY EMINENT DOMAIN!”

The banner which can be seen by a block away and is visible to thousands of people passing by everyday on a nearby street. It gained attention for Wilson’s cause until the banner itself was called into question. The city of Norfolk ordered Wilson to take it down because it violates a sign code stipulating signs must be 60 sq. ft. or under.

The libertarian public interest law firm The Institute for Justice is representing Central Radio Company in the free speech case regarding the forced removal of the banner. Erica Smith, one of the attorneys working on the censorship case, said the forced removal of the banner is “a slap in the face to our clients” considering Old Dominion University itself has banners larger than the one in question hanging from buildings which are visible to Central Radio Company.

Smith points out, “A sign of 60 sq. ft. entirely defeats the purpose. Right now the banner is intentionally visible to Hampton blvd which is a big road that crosses right in front of Central Radio so if it were 60 sq. ft. no one would be able to read it.”

Many other local business that are also in violation of the sign have been left untouched by the city. Smith doesn’t see this as a coincidence. “Throughout the city there are banners that are just as big if not bigger than Central Radio Co.’s. It seems the city may be selectively enforcing the sign code against our client because they don’t like what they are saying.”

As of today the sign still stands until its fate is decided at the preliminary injunction hearing June 28. The city has agreed not to take action until then. This also means they are not enforcing the fine of up to $1,000 per day for sign code violations.

While the banner hangs the flood of support continues to flow through letters, phone calls and grassroots efforts to save this 75-year-old Norfolk staple. IJ has also gotten creative by planning to host a rally and picnic on July 5 at Central Radio Company.

Smith condemned the city’s actions, saying, “not only is it unfair but it’s unconstitutional.” If the judge doesn’t agree at an upcoming preliminary injunction hearing, they plan to appeal to the 4th circuit court.

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Angelica Malik