By Jim Gaines
Bowling Green’s city commissioners and a small crowd from interested organizations got an exposition Tuesday night of city staff’s efforts to buy land for downtown redevelopment.
“We want to go over what the process is,” City Manager Chuck Coates said. “This is not a discussion on LifeSkills; this is not a debate with the Downtown Redevelopment Authority.”
The city is involved in a disagreement with the Kentucky Heritage Council over whether it has to review for historic significance every building more than 50 years old, which the city wants to buy, in a 29-block downtown area, or consider only those bought with federal dollars.
To detail that discussion, a special commission meeting – “strictly informational” – was scheduled, Coates said.
The city’s role in downtown revitalization efforts is to acquire, clear and assemble property for redevelopment, he said. That must involve some local money, since the $674,000 a year Bowling Green gets as federal entitlement money won’t be enough.
Some local money will go to buy land for the Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center’s planned downtown site and other projects, Coates said.
“We will be using city dollars to acquire a site for a ballfield, if that comes together,” he said.
Alice Burks, assistant to the city Housing and Community Development Director – Special Projects, gave commissioners an explanation of the federal regulations – referred to as Section 106 – governing how to deal with historic properties.
“The reason that the city of Bowling Green gets involved in Section 106 is when we receive federal funding,” Burks said. The Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 requires the city to review buildings more than 50 years old for historic significance if they’re slated to be demolished or affected by redevelopment projects.
“We are the ones that have to make the final decision,” she said.
That usually boils down to a discussion and agreement between the city and the state historic preservation office, Burks said.
Consideration of historic significance doesn’t prohibit demolition; it just makes sure that historical importance is taken into account and that all options are considered, she said.
The current disagreement concerns the planned purchase and demolition of 538 State St., adjacent to Circus Square, for a new headquarters for LifeSkills.
The city says that that’s an isolated project, not subject to the review standards since the land is being bought with local money rather than federal dollars. The Kentucky Heritage Council says the overall effect of redevelopment requires a broadening of the review.
“They think that Circus Square has an effect on the entire 29 blocks,” Burks said.
In October, heritage council Executive Director David Morgan sent the city a letter saying just that.
“This was kind of an about-face from what we’d been told back in the summer of 2003,” Burks said.
At that time, the heritage council said it was only interested in projects using federal funding, not everything in the area, she said.
City staff maintain that considering all buildings more than 50 years old in the 29-block redevelopment area would place an “unnecessary burden” on, and cause delays for, private developers if the city assists their projects in any way, Burks said.
But when she asked Morgan if the city should stop all property buys until this is resolved, he said no, according to Burks.
“We have basically put a hold on the purchase of 538 State St. until we can get some resolution on this,” she said.
Commissioner Joe Denning asked again if the city, to be safe, shouldn’t quit buying property downtown until the dispute is straightened out.
Coates replied that there’s no dispute over land use for the city’s community center, or an elderly housing project.
“We have to keep some of these projects going,” he said.
Coates characterized the dispute with the state as a “friendly disagreement,” but said that no one knows when the federal advisory council’s decision will come in.
The argument has been submitted to the federal Advisory Council for Historic Preservation.
“We’re waiting to hear their opinion as the whether the entire 29-block area is subject to review,” Burks said.
Asked by Mayor Sandy Jones to clarify standards and uses of eminent domain, Harmon said that the city rarely uses condemnation to acquire land.
“We probably acquire 95 to 98 percent of our property by agreement,” he said.
In an 11-block redevelopment project in the St. Joseph area, the city used eminent domain to buy one old house and a small trailer park, Harmon said.
There are three condemnation actions going on now, all for the rebuilding of the city’s community center, he said.
When the city uses eminent domain to buy property, it must first have a legitimate project lined up for the site, Harmon said. An appraiser determines the property’s fair market value, and an offer is made. If the city and owner can’t agree on a price, city staff ask commissioners to approve eminent domain proceedings. The matter goes to court, and an owner can challenge the method’s use. If the sale goes ahead, a 12-member jury must decide unanimously on a fair price.
It’s Harmon’s opinion that a current U.S. Supreme Court case dealing with eminent domain won’t affect the Kentucky law that allows condemnation for urban redevelopment.
That case, from Connecticut, is about using eminent domain strictly for economic development projects, not clearing “slum and blighted areas,” as the Kentucky law allows, he said.
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