10/11/2005

Arundel senator takes aim at eminent domain decision: Baltimore (MD) Business Journal,10/2/05

By Juleka Dash

A Maryland state senator plans to introduce legislation that would make it tougher for governments to seize private property to make way for shopping malls and condominium complexes.

Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., an Anne Arundel Democrat, wants to keep the state from broadening its power of eminent domain as a result of a recent controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision that has pitted urban renewal proponents against private property advocates.

DeGrange said any legislation he crafts — the exact language of the bill is still being considered — would not harm any current projects or change current practices throughout the state. Baltimore City has used eminent domain for a host of landmark projects, most recently for redevelopment of downtown's west side.

But after the Supreme Court ruling, DeGrange said he fears this scenario: "There might be a developer who wants to put a shopping center in and the government says it's a good thing to take properties under eminent domain," he said.

In July, the Supreme Court determined that the Connecticut city of New London could seize private homes for a multimillion-dollar commercial project that would house high-end townhouses and pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. Private property advocates say the decision gives the average citizen little recourse to safeguard their property from the government's hands.

The ruling prompted reaction from federal lawmakers and state legislatures, but DeGrange's proposal represents the first such move in Maryland.

DeGrange is making a step in the right direction, said U.S. Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, a Democrat who represents the Baltimore suburbs. He said the U.S. Supreme Court decision made government's condemnation powers too broad.

"People need to feel secure in their homes and their property," Ruppersberger said.

The former Baltimore County executive made his own failed attempt to condemn private property for revitalization efforts. In 2000, Ruppersberger pushed for Senate Bill 509, which sought to transform the Middle River area into a tourist attraction with a marina, shops and restaurants. The bill went to referendum and was defeated.

In Baltimore City, the struggle between government and property owners was witnessed recently over the play for property in midtown, which includes the Chesapeake Restaurant, vacant since the mid-1980s. This month, the Baltimore Development Corp. chose Station North Development Partners LLC to turn the building into a mixed-use project, including townhouses, retail and office space.

BDC officials said they had no comment until they review DeGrange's proposed legislation.

In the case of the Chesapeake property, the city hopes to transform what has been an idle section of the city, said Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, a Democrat who represents the midtown area.

Young and other urban renewal advocates say that while they are not familiar with DeGrange's proposal, they would oppose any legislation that would change Maryland's existing law.

"Any bill that forbids the taking of property which is declared to be and is blighted could have an adverse impact on future redevelopment," said Morton P. Fisher Jr., a real estate attorney with Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll LLP.

Joshua Auerbach, assistant solicitor for the city, said property rights advocates' fear the Supreme Court ruling would pave the way for governments to turn a Motel 6 into a Ritz-Carlton, for example, are overblown. The ruling simply allows elected officials and urban planners to decide each project on its own merits. "Urban planning is a real body of knowledge that is entitled to some deference," he said.

Though not familiar with DeGrange's proposal, Ronald M. Kreitner, executive director of WestSide Renaissance Inc., doesn't think the Supreme Court ruling has any real impact on the use of eminent domain.

"There are a lot of safeguards already in place within the law that prevents government from seizing any private property," he said.


Baltimore Business Journal: http://baltimore.bizjournals.com