9/13/2004

Aurora Again Abusing Small Businesses

City invoking eminent domain near Fitzsimons
(Editorial)

It seems there's no rest or relief for the cluster of small businesses near the new Fitzsimons medical complex in Aurora. Once again, the biggest threat they face is from their own predatory city government.

Last year, they beat back Aurora's effort to amortize their businesses, a scheme that would have allowed the city to close them without compensation for not conforming to the view of what the neighborhood should look like. After a barrage of negative publicity, the city council rescinded the amortization ordinance. The state legislature added a punctuation mark by making such moves illegal.

But now the city is back with a more traditional condemnation plan, based on a "blight" designation, that may be legal but is just as outrageous.

The first targets are the 30-odd owners who occupy 17 acres on the southwest corner of Colfax and Peoria. They would get something, as in compensation, but it would be whatever low-ball figure the city offers and a court adjusts. The price would not be set by free negotiations between willing buyers and sellers.

It's the worst kind of condemnation, since it's not for a legitimate public good like a road or an airport. Instead, private property would simply be transferred, through force of law, to another private owner, invariably a politically connected developer. In this case, the developer will be selected from two applicants, who would build a shopping plaza, presumably with more upscale stores. The city is hoping for more sales tax revenue than it gets now from the auto-body shops and other blue-collar enterprises struggling to survive.

The takeover scheme has been temporarily delayed by an incident that would have been embarrassing, if Aurora were capable of embarrassment. The developer it originally selected was entering bankruptcy. Worse is that he took it upon himself to personally bully the owners into selling at what they complained were unreasonably low prices. He got bounced last winter.

The blight designation usually means big problems for owners. Once your property has been so designated - and the city has designated plenty of acreage beyond the 17 acres at issue - your property is almost impossible to sell no matter how ripe it might be for development.

We can only hope local property owners can find, and afford, an attorney to help them through this. After all, the mood of the courts is changing when it comes to condemnation for private purposes. Last March, for example, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled unanimously against the Arvada Urban Renewal Authority's effort to condemn a popular lake, which it wanted so a Wal-Mart could be built.

And a month ago the Michigan Supreme Court unanimously overturned the infamous 1981 Poletown decision that allowed Detroit and Wayne County to seize thousands of homes and dozens of churches and businesses so that General Motors could build a new plant.

Within a few weeks the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether to hear its first case on whether eminent domain can be used for private instead of public purposes. Perhaps Aurora's small businesses can hang on long enough to see a change in the law.


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