Hearing imminent on fate of depot site: Pawtucket (RI) Times, 2/3/05

By Douglas Hadden

To seize, or not to seize.

That is the basic question city officials will trot out before the public in a public hearing in three or four weeks.

And on it turns who will own the former train depot site straddling the line with Central Falls, what would get developed there and whether the blighted 90-year-old building survives.

The land-taking process is called eminent domain, and before city resident Jean Vitali’s property could be taken, there are many legal hoops to jump through, which City Planner Michael Cassidy outlined Wednesday to a City Council panel.

Cassidy, who is also executive director of the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency, said PRA would function as owner. Steps involved in taking the land include having two property appraisals done for review by a third appraiser to arrive at what is called "fair market value."

That figure would be used as the starting point for negotiations with Vitali, Cassidy said. If talks did not produce an agreement, the next move by the PRA, which would also be acting for Central Falls, is to Superior Court to take the property and put its offering price in an escrow account.

Vitali could sue over the compensation amount as inadequate, but not stop the process.

The problem for the PRA — and for the Pawtucket Foundation, which has its own concept for the site that centers on saving the depot — is that Vitali in 2003 granted a $1.4 million purchase option to a private developer, Warwick RICS LLC, an entity of Memphis-based SMPO Properties Inc. and its partners, Oscar "Ike" Seelbinder and Jack Mitchell.

The partners, seeking final council passage of a zone change from residential to commercial for 40,000 square feet of the site on the Pawtucket side, need that approval to close the deal and launch their $30-$40 million project, in which the depot would be torn down.

But if they get the rezoning, a court setting the property’s value would have to take into account not only the $1.4 million purchase cost, but also four long-term commercial leases lined up for the site, said John Garrahy, an attorney for Warwick RICS.

Another potential difficulty, according to Garrahy, is whether the law that grants PRA eminent domain power would apply where a developer is in place to put up a project and thus cure the blighted condition.

There are other obstacles too: Cassidy said PRA currently has only about $642,000 set aside to take the depot property as well as five much smaller, blighted properties elsewhere in the city. He said an appraisal of the property was done about two years ago but did not reveal what value it determined; Seelbinder has said he thinks it was $400,000 or less.

Garrahy also noted the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to look at a Connecticut eminent domain case, which may indicate the court wants to take a closer look at the widening use of that governmental power in recent years.

But an attorney for the foundation, Michael Horan, downplayed the severity of the seizure power. "When people hear eminent domain, they think it’s this Draconian slice," when "it’s clearly not," he told the meeting of the council Ordinance Committee.

Councilor Thomas Hodge said there was a "big misconception" that "we’re going to steal the property."

The panel’s chairman, Councilor David Moran, said the public perception of eminent domain as a severe move has been "a problem from day one" for the depot issue.

Councilor Robert Carr had several sharp questions about the consequences of eminent domain, which brought out that PRA could sell the property to its chosen developer for less than it bought it for; and that SMPO, which would put up commercial buildings first then seek to bring back commuter rail in its second phase, could also negotiate with the state, federal and other agencies involved in the rail project.

But Cassidy said the agencies would rather deal with the two cities.

Cassidy also said "it’s possible" the PRA’s chosen developer may also determine the depot lacks structural integrity or would be too expensive to repair. He said if the building, eligible but not on the National Historic Register, was placed on that list, PRA could not use federal or state dollars to tear it down.

Cassidy also noted there are extensive federal and state tax credits available for historic buildings that would make saving it more attractive to developers.

While the property remained in PRA hands, Cassidy said, the agency would continue to pay property taxes on it here and in Central Falls.

"But they would be paying taxes on a blighted building," Carr said, well below what a new development there would bring in.

Pawtucket Times: www.zwire.com/site/news.cfm?brd=1713