The Ohio History Connection recently unveiled a plaque commemorating the location of Village of Euclid v. Ambler. (Thanks to Michael Allan Wolf and Stephen R. Miller of the LandUse Blog for the story).
The plaque reads:
By 1922, the Ambler Realty Company of Cleveland owned this site along with 68 acres of land between Euclid Avenue and the Nickel Plate rail line. Upon learning of the company’s plans for industrial development, the Euclid Village Council enacted a zoning code based on New York City’s building restrictions. Represented by Newton D. Baker, former Cleveland mayor and U.S. Secretary of War under Woodrow Wilson [and founder of Baker Hostetler], Ambler sued the village claiming a loss of property value. In 1926, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Euclid and upheld the constitutionality of zoning and land-use regulations by local governments. The federal government eventually acquired the Ambler site during World War II to build a factory to make aircraft engines and landing gear. From 1948 to 1992, the site was used as a production facility by the Fisher Body Division of General Motors.
Paul Oyaski, Former Euclid Mayor, offered a history of the case. Here is a segment of the speech:
Euclid’s zoning ordinance was not the first such ordinance adopted in the United States. But Euclid, the “mere” suburb of giant Cleveland became the target of the first federal lawsuit alleging that the ordinance in its entirety was unconstitutional for violating the due process rights, the liberty interests and the equal protection rights of the owner of this then 68-acre property, Ambler Realty. The Euclid ordinance determined that Ambler’s parcel would have to be used for single or two family residences only along the Avenue. Only the rear portion of this parcel next to the railroad could be used for industrial purposes. Ambler was very unhappy with these restrictions as he saw the maximum value of his private property was greatly reduced. The successful 77 year-old Ambler wanted to decide himself how to best use his property. Industrial use was his preferred choice for his Euclid Avenue frontage.
Euclid’s position was that its elected government, possessing home rule powers under the 1912 Ohio constitution, could legislate what was in the best interests of the public health, safety and general welfare of its residents. Ordinance 2812 was based on the Village’s desire to prevent congestion, to not overburden the sewer and water systems, and to preserve the Village’s character. Euclid’s law pointed out that they had set aside sufficient land for industrial purposes but not at this spot.
The issue of how much power the government has over private property was the crux of the matter that, once resolved, established a long-enduring legal precedent, served as a model for thousands of other communities and rightfully earned us this historical marker.
Who were the key leaders in the battle? The Village was led by its fifth Mayor, Charles X. Zimmerman, 57 years old and a veteran of the Spanish-American War and the First World War and a Brigadier General to boot. The village was represented by lawyer James Metzenbaum, who once lived in a beautiful house on the Avenue near Sherwood Boulevard with his late, beloved wife, Bessie Benner Metzenbaum. The six members of Village Council, including the sponsor of Ordinance 2812, Councilman Cantlon, were unanimous in their support for the innovative ordinance. Just after Ambler filed suit in May, 1923, Euclid offered to compromise by increasing the size of the area for industrial use that could be built next to the railroad. Euclid never budged on its decision that the Euclid Avenue frontage must be residential. The village’s concession did not stop the lawsuit.
The private property owner was Judge William Ambler whose family had developed the still beautiful Ambler Heights subdivision, just east of University Circle. Ambler was represented by Newton Baker, someone who would have been one of the first selections to the Cleveland politicians’ Hall of Fame if there was such a thing. Baker was once the law director for the legendary Cleveland Mayor Tom Johnson, then Mayor himself when City Hall was dedicated and later Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of War during WW 1. Baker was a founder of the powerhouse Cleveland law firm, Baker and Hostetler, now located in Key Tower. Baker privately considered Euclid’s zoning restrictions as “communistic” in that they took the value of private property and gave that value to the public without compensating the private owner. Baker was a mover and a shaker and he raised several thousands of dollars to cover legal fees and expenses in advance from major property owners, including the two railroads in Euclid. Ambler filed suit initially in the federal district court then found in the new federal building on Public Square. The local federal judge assigned to decide the case was Judge David Westenhaver, Baker’s former law partner whom Baker reportedly encouraged President Wilson to appoint to the bench.
The initial decision by Judge Westenhaver in early 1924 was a total loss for Euclid. He decided that the Euclid law violated the due process clause by taking private property for public use without just compensation. It was discriminatory, confiscatory, exclusionary and unreasonable. Euclid’s law had put private property in a “straitjacket.” Round one of Euclid v. Ambler was a complete victory for the 55 year-old Baker and his client. In those days, an appeal could be made directly to the US Supreme Court led by former President Taft which the Village and Metzenbaum promptly filed.
By all accounts, the 43-year old Metzenbaum was a nervous worry wart as he mounted the appeal, inundating the Court clerk with numerous filings. This would be his only case before the highest court and he was determined to win. It was also said that the village’s attorney was a small man whom the justices had to lean forward to see from the high bench upon which they sat.
There was a first hearing in early 1926 and the results of that hearing had Metzenbaum worried; he urgently and successfully asked the Court for permission to file another brief from his homebound train which was stuck in a blizzard. An unusual second hearing was granted for the fall of 1926 and it included all nine justices. In the meantime, a national planning expert, Alfred Bettman from Cincinnati was permitted to file a brief on behalf of Euclid. In the end, Bettman’s work justifying zoning was considered very helpful to Euclid.
On November 22, 1926, by a 6-3 vote, Euclid won! The famous decision upheld the validity of municipal zoning and is still good law today. Justice Sutherland, once known as one of the four most conservative justices—the so-called Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse- who were generally supportive of private property rights and opposed to government regulation, wrote a thorough opinion upholding Metzenbaum and Bettman’s arguments. Sutherland said that changes in modern society justified a new approach to reviewing the extent of governmental power involving land use issues. His opinion gave deference to local governments, saying the Euclid’s law was not clearly arbitrary or unreasonable and that it was not unrelated to the public health, safety and general welfare. Sutherland was not impressed with the fact that Ambler’s property was worth less under Euclid’s zoning, finding that the village’s regulation was not an unconstitutional taking of the parcel’s entire value. Sutherland noted that most state court decisions had previously upheld the power of zoning under state constitutions. Westenhaver’s lower court decision was reversed.
A key cameo role was played by US Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover who was then developing the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act, promoting the federal view that states should empower their subdivisions to enact local zoning in the interests of efficiency. Mayor Zimmerman admitted that Euclid relied on an early version of Hoover’s work when the village was studying the subject in 1922.
Euclid’s zoning plan was given the Supreme Court’s seal of approval! The Cleveland City Manager called the decision “revolutionary.” Major US newspapers commented favorably on the decision. The Christian Science Monitor said that it was an answer to an urban reformer’s prayer. And, David had beaten Goliath! Ordinance 2812 is still the law in Euclid, although repeatedly amended. It has been a model for more than 4000 American cities. The bold initiative taken by Mayor Zimmerman and the Village Council was completely vindicated. Thanks to zoning, there are no fast food restaurants on Ball Avenue and no smoke stacks north of the Boulevard. Homes are setback from the street just so far, fences can only be so high, signs so big, and houses must be set apart from one another.
Zoning laws, while not without criticism, led to such newer concepts as environmental protection and historic preservation. Cities can still lose zoning cases today if a court finds the regulations to be arbitrary, discriminatory, unreasonable or based on aesthetics. But zoning stills stands as a municipal watchdog.
In Euclid after 1926, industry, for a time, was limited to the area along and between the railroads until Hitler started invading most of Europe. America prepared to respond. Congress passed a law calling for the increased production of war materials and the federal construction of war plants, including one right here that made airplanes and airplane parts. The Constitution also states that federal laws are the supreme law of the land meaning that the US government is not bound by local zoning. So, long after Judge Ambler and Newton Baker passed away, the Ambler property here was used for industry after all. The need for the Arsenal of Democracy trumped Ordinance 2812.
James Metzenbaum had won his one and only case before the US Supreme Court. His argument and legal skills bested the vaunted Newton Baker. His attention to detail and determination on behalf of the people of Euclid established a lasting precedent. His life after this victory was described as melancholy. His young wife, Bessie Benner Metzenbaum died in 1920 after 15 years of marital bliss. They had no children. Shortly after her death, Mayor Zimmerman had put him to work on the committee that drafted Ordinance 2812. Metzenbaum moved to Cleveland’s Statler Hotel after her death, wrote two popular law casebooks on the Law of Zoning, and ran several times for public office. He bought a farm in Chester Township in the late 1940s. Metzenbaum remained devoted to her wife’s memory. He visited her at Lakeview Cemetery two or three times weekly for the forty years! In fact, Metzenbaum died on New Year’s Eve in 1960 while trying to free his car from a snow drift in Lakeview after his last visit to his beloved Bessie. Metzenbaum’s will left part of the farm in Chester to serve young people and the Metzenbaum Center for the developmentally disabled opened in 1966 and is still hard at work today. The balance of the farm became the beautiful Bessie Benner Metzenbaum Park.
Metzenbaum’s legacy lives on in American jurisprudence, in the community of Euclid he served so diligently and on a beautiful rustic site a short distance from here.
Four score and ten years ago, the mere suburb known as the Village of Euclid, population of less than 4000, boldly passed a visionary law, tenaciously fought to defend that law and won the day before the highest court in the land against formidable opponents. That victory led to the nationwide adoption of zoning laws, and American cities have been forever transformed as a result.
When I teach Euclid, I provide these images to illustrate the site:
As best I can tell, the lot is currently bounded by E 196th St and E 204th St, between Euclid Avenue and the train tracks.
Here is the map.
It seems to be some kind of business park today. Here are some photographs of what the lot looks like today, courtesy of Michael Alan Wolf.
And in case you were wondering (I know you were!) what the Supreme Court looked like in 1926, here it is: