The misuse of eminent domain in York: York (PA) Daily Record, 9/4/05

By Vickie Washington

There are at least four situations that come to mind when I think about eminent domain in York: The Broad Street grocery vs. the school district, York College dorm expansion on Springettsbury, baseball and the northwest triangle vs. Arch St. and North Beaver Street — and the one you may not know about is the 400 block of Hope Alley vs. public safety.

Recently, I was given a tour of the 400 block of Hope Avenue. The Redevelopment Authority owns three of these six buildings. There I saw houses that have been abandoned for at least 20 years. One had no back, many had broken, dangling window shards and slate that could become a hazard in the presence of a strong wind. I saw weeds and high growth all around these properties, rodents and other wild animals amid dumped garbage, and little children playing there. When I approached the Redevelopment Authority about this street, with pictures in hand, I was told that taking these homes under eminent domain was a long process. This deeply concerns me.

In regard to baseball, we have already declared Arch Street blighted, and this took only a few months. Now their properties can be acquired via eminent domain. Some people have lived in these homes for more than 50 years. The longtime chairman of the Planning Commission resigned. There is also the acquisition of two homes on Springettsbury Avenue by the RDA to expand dorm housing for York College. These homes, while unoccupied and in need of repair, were featured on the Rusk Report some years back as an excellent example of the fine architecture of our city dwellings. Yet they can be declared blighted and taken by eminent domain for destruction and land use by a private entity in less than three months.

Where is the concept of historic preservation? The historic preservation board has not even made a squeak on this. Some people in the neighborhood were not even aware that this was happening, even though they are already demanding parking passes due to student congestion. What will this expansion do to the arteries of this neighborhood?

This brings me to my fourth and last comparison. Members of city council are not only quick to use eminent domain to take your property for baseball, but they are also angry at the school district for not giving away elementary school property.

How can their decisions be so viciously criticized and derided by those city officials who, as Councilman Smallwoood has said, “would give the farm away for baseball.”

Frankly, I see more due diligence being carried out by our school board than by city council. School board members ask for and follow the advice of their solicitor, and ask to see business plans and contracts. On the other hand, badly conceived legislation, written by council, has cost the city money in defending litigation. We have seen regressive fees on fire hydrants and lights that Council President Texter tried to push through. Early on our solicitor said he did not think it was legal. If I, or some other council member, had not pushed for a written opinion, we would probably be spending money defending ourselves against that illegal legislation. And let’s not forget the cell phone ban, the goat legislation, the sign ordinance, the loitering law — all deemed illegal. In 2004, the city spent $750,000 in legal fees, and the dollars are adding up rapidly this year.

To me it seems like maybe there are city officials who would like to run the school district. That would be interesting. The same government that didn’t bother to fund the police and fire pension for years, the same government that brought you an ice skating rink that’s costing you $450,000 a year, and the same government that wants to bring you baseball by any means necessary. Is that what we have elected city officials to do?

And what about the city garage? Can we legally sell the maintenance garage without offering it for public bidding? Shouldn’t we know what environmental problems might exist and what it might cost to remedy same? Remember the courthouse and the “$750,000 surprise” of gasoline contamination that had to be addressed at additional cost to the project? If we put a baseball stadium on Arch Street and a shopping mall on Broad Street, will those residents who are so excited about having a grocery store in their neighborhood even be there to enjoy it, or are their houses next to be taken under eminent domain? Where do your council members stand on these matters of eminent domain?

The bottom line is this: We can fast track eminent domain for baseball and to take architecturally significant homes to sell to York College, but we cannot use it to ensure public safety on Hope Avenue. What about those children playing on Hope Avenue? Isn’t public safety one of the most important responsibilities of city government?

After all, we have HUD dollars specifically for this. More than two million of it has yet to be spent from past years. Maybe they’re saving this for baseball as well?

York Daily Record: http://ydr.com

Vickie Washington is vice president of the York City Council