City to invoke eminent domain: St Petersburg (FL) Times, 1/27/06

Nearly 2,000 homes are planned for a Tampa Heights project, but some landowners don't want to sell

By Janet Zink

Carmen Brown Johnson says her family has owned land in Tampa Heights for nearly 100 years.

Now, they'll have to sell it or the city will force them to.

The City Council voted unanimously Thursday to begin eminent domain proceedings if necessary in a neglected part of Tampa Heights where a developer wants to build a 60-acre master-planned community with nearly 2,000 homes.

A development team that includes developer Bill Bishop, Lazydays RV SuperCenter founder Don Wallace and Bank of America has already paid top dollar for properties in the area roughly bounded by North Boulevard, Ross Avenue, Tampa Street and the Hillsborough River.

According to the property appraiser's Web site, one property owner bought a vacant parcel in the neighborhood for $15,000 in 1997. The developers paid him $200,000 for it in August.

Fewer than a dozen holdouts remain, so the developers turned to the city for help.

"This is not a situation where we're trying to attract more business to the area to collect more taxes," said City Attorney David Smith. "This is an area that meets the statutory criteria for slum and blight."

That's in contrast to a controversial U.S. Supreme Court case involving Connecticut homeowners, in which the court ruled that eminent domain could be used to take land for private economic development even if it had not been declared blighted, Smith said.

Smith said the Tampa Heights case serves a public purpose.

Some property owners, though, don't want to sell.

Among them is Julia Jackson, who owns seven parcels in the area. She lives on one parcel, which means the city can't force her to sell it. The developers said they will not pursue three properties that surround her home.

Jackson said she was offered $700,000 for all of her land, which the Hillsborough County property appraiser values at about $240,000.

She said she won't sell unless she can get enough money to buy seven properties somewhere else in the city.

Johnson's father owns a vacant lot valued at about $30,000. She said the family doesn't want to sell and has hired an attorney to fight the taking.

"It's not a money issue. We just don't believe the project's going to come to pass as they say it is," she said.

But City Council members said the developers' proposal benefits the public and will help revitalize an economically depressed neighborhood.

A study in 1999 determined the area suffered from slum and blight, and the city turned it into a community redevelopment area, which means some property taxes collected in the neighborhood are reinvested directly back into it.

"No one has ever taken the power of eminent domain lightly," said council member Rose Ferlita.

In this case, she said, the developers have offered good prices to property owners.

"They've treated everyone with dignity," she said. "Some people want to stay longer than they should."

St Petersburg Times: www.sptimes.com