Delegate withdraws proposed eminent domain bill — The (Maryland) Business Gazette, 1/20/05

by Jeffrey K. Lyles

There has been a swift reversal in the proposed correlation of two bills that could have used eminent domain to tear down homes in Cottage City.

According to one bill, which generated considerable concern by city officials and residents, these homes could have been replaced by businesses.

Del. Justin Ross (D-Dist. 22) of Greenbelt proposed bill PG 31605 that would have given the redevelopment authority the same power as the Baltimore City Economic Development Corp. and the National Capital Revitalization in Washington D.C., in dealing with blight, underutilized, and underdeveloped areas.

In withdrawing the measure Tuesday, Ross told The Gazette that while he still believed it was important, the county's priorities are elsewhere and he would devote his energies towards them, including more funding for schools and providing more county police officers.

Cottage City Chairman Commissioner Edward Hudgins said he and other town officials suspected the bill was introduced to assume control of 38th Street and Bladensburg Road.

The eminent domain power would have only been used on a case-by-case basis when approved by the County Council, Ross said.

While the first bill does not mention Cottage City, the commissioners were concerned that the second, PG 31405, which does, has a connection to 31605.

Bill PG31405 allows the Liquor Board to authorize areas to hold additional Class B liquor licenses.

Cottage City Commissioner Anna Angolia cited a portion of the bill that read "Any of the following area that are under served by restaurants. Section 1 #2, B. Part of the Port Towns business district consisting of properties fronting on or having access to Rhode Island Avenue Bladensburg Road, Annapolis Road or 38th Avenue."

"You don't take a town that's functioning, has a low crime-rate and try to destroy it," Angolia said. "This isn't a slum. This is a well-kept area. You can't take people's properties just because you want to put in a fancy restaurant."

Angolia argues that Cottage City is a residential town and does not need to become a tourist destination.

"They say they're going to make this a Georgetown but Cottage City will never be Georgetown or National Harbor," Angolia said.

"We're a wonderful quiet community that people move here because of its proximity to the District and Virginia not because we have shops like Georgetown."

He cited a battle the commissioners fought four years ago when the county wanted to tear down 10 houses to build a government school.

"These were mainly the houses of older, minority residents. Fortunately, we were able to defeat the proposal," Hudgins said. "Having fought that wrenching battle, we are not interested in fighting another [one]."

Hudgins said that eminent domain is only supposed to be used to take land for public purpose such as roads, courthouses and those kinds of public facilities, not to tear down residential homes.

He said the provision is not to be used by the political elite to impose their ideas on a community or to decide on what businesses should be in their area.

"From what we understand, one of the motivations for this [proposed move] is to replace homes with businesses. That, to me, is illegal and immoral."

Sen. Gwendolyn Britt (D-Dist. 47) of Landover Hills said that Ross' bill did not specifically address Cottage City but did provide for the Redevelopment Authority to take property through eminent domain for some project under consideration when it is in the best interest of the county.

"I am still researching it to determine what, if any, intent there is in the bill. If it's general, I don't really see a problem with it as eminent domain is used quite often," Britt said. "It's used mostly as a process of last resort."

Hudgins said, "The legislation is kind of open-ended," he said. "I don't trust the government planners. Part of the danger is that the legislation is open-ended and therefore we don't know where the government will strike."

County Councilman David Harrington (D-Dist. 5) of Bladensburg said, "While I recognize their concern, eminent domain can be used as a positive economic development tool particularly for older communities," Harrington said.

Harrington used for example, a case of a decaying strip mall where eminent domain could be used to replace it with something more community friendly.

"It's not about the government taking homes," he said. "What it's about is creating open space for older dense areas that allow for other economic development to occur."

Harrington said eminent domain would not be used to put in a business like a liquor store.

The Gazette: www.gazette.net