Lower Merion Township's plan to redevelop downtown Ardmore took a pounding last week in a hearing on state legislation aimed at curbing eminent domain abuse.
An "extreme example." "Un-American." Those were some of the things members of the House State Government Committee and other legislators had to say about the township's process of declaring the area blighted and targeting properties for demolition, after hearing testimony from Ardmore citizens. The hearing, the second of two pre-session forums, was held Aug. 31 at the Philadelphia Convention Center.
At issue were two bills, HB 1835 and 1836, introduced by Johnstown Rep. Thomas Yewcic (D-72nd) in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in Kelo v. City of New London. It upheld a Connecticut Supreme Court finding in favor of the city, saying that the use of eminent domain to turn properties over to a private developer was not unconstitutional, because it served a "public purpose" of economic development.
Under Lower Merion's redevelopment plan, a private developer would be recruited to build a parking garage, new retail stores and upscale apartments in connection with a new Ardmore Transit Center.
Nationally, the Kelo decision set off a flurry of more restrictive state legislation. Yewcic said his bills, introduced "quickly, before the end of the session," were intended to start the debate in Pennsylvania. Other House and Senate bills are expected.
Yewcic's bills attack the issue specifically by amending state law to prohibit a municipality from taking property to turn it over to a "nonpublic interest," or solely to "add to or increase the tax base."
A third provision would add a "reverter" clause to a declaration of taking, stating that, in the event the property is used for any nonpublic purpose, it would revert to its original owner or heirs.
Testifying in support were Save Ardmore Coalition President Sharon Eckstein, Suburban Office Equipment owner Scott Mahan, and Eni and Betty Foo, owners of HuNan Restaurant. All four described a process in which local government leaders acted, in the face of overwhelming opposition by citizens, to designate downtown Ardmore as blighted (a prerequisite for creating a redevelopment plan).
The township then adopted a plan, counter to the findings of such experts as the Urban Land Institute, calling for the potential demolition of historic buildings, they said. "Where else can occupied and successful business properties valued in excess of $1 million each be considered blighted?" Eckstein asked.
Eni and Betty Foo described receiving a letter from the township in early 2004, prior to any public meetings, stating that it intended to designate a revitalization area and acquire the building in which they have operated their restaurant for 30 years.
Betty Foo recalled that she was teaching one of her classes in Chinese language and culture for local students. "I told them they were so lucky they lived in a beautiful country, where they had the freedom everyone else was dying to have." Suddenly, "I have to tell the children I may not be [here] because someone else with more money, someone more powerful might take my place."
She remembered the response of relatives in China: "How could this happen in America? America is not like this!" The testimony clearly moved the committee. Chairman Paul Clymer (R-145th) called it "heartsearching." "What we see in Kelo and Lower Merion Township are the extreme examples," commented Montgomery County Rep. Josh Shapiro (D-153rd). Shapiro asked, in particular, for the committee to receive copies of the findings by which Lower Merion declared a portion of Ardmore blighted.
Other speakers at the hearing, including representatives of redevelopment authorities and the Pennsylvania Planning Association, said eminent domain is a tool for revitalization that must not be carelessly discarded.
If there is common ground, it is that Pennsylvania needs a clearer, more stringent definition of blight, said Ardmore Rep. Daylin Leach (D-149th). "I'm not sure it's the safety [net] you're saying it is," he told one planner.
Specifically, he said, it "doesn't seem to fit" Ardmore. Rep. Louise Williams Bishop (D-192nd), who represents a portion of Philadelphia across City Avenue from Lower Merion, agreed the Ardmore situation is puzzling, but said the power to take properties that have been abandoned or neglected is essential. Agreeing with others who said the needs in Pennsylvania are diverse, "That is the issue we're wrestling with on this committee," she said. "When is it blight, and what are the obligations of [property] owners? If we could come up with the answer to those questions, we would not be so different throughout the commonwealth."
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