Shopowners cry foul: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 7/4/05

Stockbridge couple says city blocked sale to seize property

By Christopher Quinn

Mark and Regina Meeks' Stockbridge Florist and Gifts has been part of "downtown" Stockbridge for more than 20 years.

But there's no room in the Henry County city's future for the little refurbished house from which the Meekses operate.

Stockbridge, a sad-looking row of businesses and its loose conglomeration of nearby offices, houses, strip centers and restaurants, is about to get a town-sized makeover.

For the Meekses and other landowners, it looks more like a power play in which the city condemns their land — forces them to sell out using the power of eminent domain — in the name of redevelopment and the public good.

City leaders have laid out a well-planned future that looks a lot like the new and improved downtown Smyrna — new multistory townhomes, brick offices, cute retail shops, and in the middle of it all, a new City Hall and town green.

In their minds' eyes, it is all rising right there along East Atlanta Road and North Henry Boulevard, where the Meekses and 17 other landowners sit — looking a little too much like, well, old Stockbridge.

The owners can sell for what the city has offered, or, as an April letter from the city attorney to the Meekses reminded them, Stockbridge could use its power of eminent domain to force them to sell for that price.

Twelve owners have reached amicable agreements to sell to the city, according to A.J. "Buddy" Welch, the city attorney. Others have not, including Marilyn Gramm, who owns a real estate development and brokerage firm.

"We are all for growth and I know the area needs to be cleaned up," she said. "But they need to pay us what our property is worth."

Gramm, without using specific numbers, said the city's offer for her property is "several hundred thousand less" than what she believes it is worth.

Mark and Regina Meeks have what they believe is proof that the city is offering less than the market value for their shop. The city offered $205,000, according to a letter from Welch.

Not bad for a half-acre. But not nearly what they were offered by a development company in 2003 before the city undercut that deal by creating a zoning overlay and redevelopment plan.

The Meekses and several adjoining landowners had been negotiating with a company that was planning to build an Eckerd drugstore.

Mark Meeks, sitting in the florist shop, pulled out a signed copy of the option to sell his property.

The agreed-upon price: $388,000 — plus the company was going to give the Meekses a lot behind the Eckerd drugstore where they would relocate their shop.

A month before they were to close on the deal, the city passed its redevelopment plan — a plan that limited drugstores in the new town district to 5,000 square feet of floor space.

Eckerd had wanted a 14,000-square-foot store, Meeks said. The deal collapsed.

"This is what the ordinance did, diminish the value of our property so [the city] could get our property cheaper," Regina Meeks said.

Welch said the city is trying to be fair and has had two appraisals of the Meeks' land and house.

"Tax money is being used to buy their land, and we can only pay the fair market value of what we are taking from those people," not what they claim it's worth, he said.

Mark Meeks said he is getting his own appraisal done and has hired an attorney.

"We'll take this and let a jury decide, because we are not going to take a lot less for our property than we already had it sold for," he said.

GOP rethinks position
The case may never make it to a judge.

Stockbridge's plan might get condemned itself. And by extension, plans across metro Atlanta to rebuild, refurbish and reshine downtowns could suffer.

Gov. Sonny Perdue and legislative leaders are vowing to protect private property rights in the wake of last month's Supreme Court decision allowing local governments to condemn private property to make way for private economic development.

Many Republican leaders backed a bill earlier this year that critics said would have encouraged the use of eminent domain to acquire land for private development. But that bill died in committee.

And in response, Sen. Jeff Chapman (R-Brunswick) introduced a bill that would have prevented eminent domain from being used for the purpose of economic development and improving a government's tax base.

The bill passed the Senate but failed in the House.

The controversy got a fresh dose of fuel with the high court's decision and subsequent outcry from the public and talk radio hosts.

A justice noted that the ruling would not prevent states from writing stricter laws to limit the use of eminent domain.

Jim Smith, a law professor at the University of Georgia, said, "What [the high court's decision] tells Georgia landowners is that their only prayer is not going to federal court, but trying to get state courts to protect them and narrow the definition of what a public purpose is."

Chapman hopes his bill will be received more favorably by an election year Legislature, and it seems headed that way.

'Who has the right?'
Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) has appointed Chapman to head a committee to gather information on making his proposed Georgia law work.

Chapman said he hopes to hold a meeting within 45 days and take testimony from interested parties.

The Georgia Municipal Association is one of those.

It supports the use of eminent domain and feels the public is adequately protected by current law. Landowners can appeal condemnation cases to local authorities or go to court.

Many cities, like Smyrna, which has been praised as a model of urban redevelopment, used eminent domain to assemble parcels from unwilling owners.

Other cities, from Duluth to Marietta, are in the midst of similar downtown redevelopments designed to make them more compact and put people in new houses closer to jobs. The redeveloped cities are supposed to cut down on driving and smog, enliven areas that have been blighted and create new centers for jobs and entertainment.

Susan Pruett, the association's general counsel, said the group is concerned about restrictions that could tie cities' hands to do almost any kind of improvement.

"You could argue every time you use eminent domain that it is for economic development. Whether you are putting in a road or when a power company is extending utilities, it's all done to make a better, more prosperous community," she said.

Sen. Doug Stoner (D-Smyrna) said, "I know Smyrna would not have been rebuilt had [Chapman's bill] been the law in Georgia."

Chapman said he is not anti-growth, but he does think people's property rights should take precedence over the desire of a government to hand over property to private firms for redevelopment.

He plans to hold his hearing in Stockbridge.

The Meekses, he said, "have a clear example of a local government rough-treating these people and possibly costing them a lot of money."

"Who has the right to take it from them at a fraction of the cost so someone else could benefit from it? That is not the American dream."

Atlanta Journal-Constitution: www.ajc.com