In May 2005, Bill Van Ness received a frightening letter. It informed him that the board of education in Clifton, New Jersey, wanted to buy a parcel of land owned by his company, Van Ness Plastic Molding, a manufacturer of pet supplies. Van Ness had bought the property a few months earlier, with the intention of using it to expand his facility. If he didn't agree to sell, the board would seize the land using eminent domain. Van Ness decided to fight back. But rather than contesting the move in court, Van Ness took the issue directly to voters, urging them to reject the board's request for $49 million in bonds to fund the new school when it came up on the ballot, in January 2006. For almost a year, he spent a third of his time -- and nearly $300,000 -- on the fight. He hired the Marcus Group, a crisis communications company, which launched a campaign arguing that the area, an industrial zone, wasn't safe for a school. School board members, meanwhile, labeled Van Ness a rich, out-of-town businessman who didn't care about working-class Clifton. But his effort paid off; voters rejected the bond request.
The experts all said Van Ness made the right decision. Tampa-based eminent domain lawyer Fred Werdine said that in 20 years of practicing, he had been able to stop the government in court only 10 times. Mary Beth Wilker, founder of Wilker Design in Cincinnati, lost her building after a six-year fight that cost about $200,000, so she was glad to see someone win an eminent domain fight outside of court. Jonathan Bernstein of Bernstein Crisis Management in Sierra Madre, California, said Van Ness should have gotten employees involved, so they "would have had a message to carry outside the company."
Van Ness turned the parcel into a tractor-trailer entrance and an expanded employee parking lot. He says he finally has time to consider some long-range projects. Van Ness won't disclose revenue, but he says the company is growing 10 percent a year.
The board of education, after several attempts, finally won a variance from the zoning board to build a high school on a different piece of land two doors down from Van Ness's property. Van Ness appealed; the case is in the appellate court and scheduled to be resolved later this spring. Though the issue no longer directly affects his business, Van Ness says he has remained in the fight on principle; he feels that the new school shouldn't be built in an area that was originally zoned for industry.