Judge to Decide CURA’s Eminent Domain Rights

By Mandy Rorrer

Plans to build a new grocery store on the city’s East End will be delayed so a judge can decide if the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority has the right to take property for the store.

In a Wednesday morning hearing, Kanawha Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey Walker was expected to grant CURA access to a lot in the 1300 block of Washington Street East.

Instead, Nick Barth and Bill Smith, two lawyers for the property’s owners, argued CURA does not have the right to buy the property.

For CURA to use eminent domain, the property must be taken for a public use, Barth said Wednesday afternoon.

He does not believe a grocery store is a public use.

Walker scheduled another hearing for Oct. 8.

Before that, both sides will file briefs with the court, Smith said.

CURA wants to buy the lot to complete a piece of property large enough to build a fairly large grocery store for the East End.

Earlier this year, CURA had the property appraised, and offered owner Frank Fisher a check for $299,000.

In April, Fisher refused the offer, saying the 19,000-square-foot lot is worth almost twice that amount.

So, CURA started eminent domain proceedings to take the lot in August.

They wrote a check for $299,000, which is being held by the court for Fisher to accept.

Eminent domain power gives government the ability to force the sale of a piece property at its appraised value.

For CURA to use eminent domain, the property must be in a designated urban renewal area, which it is, and City Council also must approve the use of eminent domain on the individual piece of property CURA wants to buy, said CURA Executive Director Pat Brown.

Urban renewal areas are established to prevent an area from becoming slum-ridden or blighted, Brown said.

He said he was frustrated by the new hearing. CURA wanted to start advertising for grocery store developers, but can’t until they have been granted access to Fisher’s property, Brown said.

Brown said CURA would probably appeal to the state Supreme Court if it lost in Kanawha Circuit Court.

He doubted CURA would pay more than the appraised value for the property.

“We’re talking about taxpayers’ money, and we have an independent opinion on what it’s worth,” Brown said.

“We don’t want to spend more than it’s worth.”

Last fall, CURA bought a 44,000-square-foot Burger King lot, and had that building torn down and property cleared earlier this summer.

The East End has been without a grocery store since 2001, when the Smith Street Kroger closed.

City officials have discussed bringing a new grocery store to the neighborhood for several years.

© 2004 The Charleston Gazette www.wvgazette.com