City uses eminent domain tool: Montgomery (AL) Advertiser, 3/5/06

By John Davis

[Tuskegee AL] Mayor Johnny Ford doesn't have time to mess around. His town has a Tuskegee Airmen Museum ramping up next year and is expecting it to bring 400,000 tourists to the town of 12,000.

"All this has to go," he said, standing on the south side of Interstate 85 near Exit 38, the exit that's going to route people to his town. Ford wants to take 40 acres near the interstate and turn it into a shopping district complete with two hotels.

The problem is, right now there's an underground oil leak from a dilapidated gas station and an abandoned motel in the town's way. On Friday he took a backhoe to the gas station, a little favor he's doing for its owner, free of charge and out of Ford's own pocket.

Ford loves eminent domain.

He says his town needs it as a catalyst for economic growth. He says he doesn't believe in taking people's homes, but he has a problem with absentee property owners in his town, some as close as Montgomery.

"I would suggest you talk with some of the people in Tuskegee," said Jay Robert Street, when asked about efforts to revamp broken down houses in Tuskegee.

Street owns one of the 60 properties the city recently declared public nuisances. Owners typically have 90 days to get their buildings up to code before the city steps in, using tax liens to pay for repairs and cleanup.

"Here is an example where eminent should be used," he said of the 40-acre gateway to Tuskegee.

The eminent domain issue is a touchy one for a lot of people, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that economic development can be a legitimate reason to condemn private property.

Ken Groves, director of planning and development for the city of Montgomery, says eminent domain most often is used as a threat to bring recalcitrant property owners to the bargaining table.

"The teeth of it is in the threat," said Groves, who in 30 years hasn't been part of an eminent domain proceeding.

The tri-county area witnessed its own eminent domain fight in 2003 when the Prattville Airport needed land to expand its runway by 2,800 feet.

The owners of the land the Prattville Airport Authority wanted for the expansion demanded more money than the authority wanted to pay. The matter was settled in Autauga County Circuit Court when the airport authority had to pay $581,000 to the owners for a 73-acre strip of land. This amount was nearly twice the authority's valuation.

After the ruling, Wetumpka attorney John Enslen, who represented land owners Jon, Ben and Donald Strength in the case, said the extra money was to compensate the brothers, who were being inconvenienced by the forced sale.

In response to the Supreme Court ruling, the Alabama Legislature passed a law last year forbidding municipalities from condemning property to bring in stores, businesses, industry, houses or nongovernment offices.

Moves on Goat Hill to propose a constitutional amendment forbidding eminent domain for private economic uses has broad support among lawmakers.

None of this bothers Ford. His plan for turning broken down buildings into a new Tuskegee is moving forward. Buildings that the city has liens against eventually could wind up on the auction block, and once under city control, Ford says, offers of free rent for months or even a year could be used to lure businesses.

Carolea Simpson of Tuskegee, whose family owns four houses the city has declared public nuisances, says she understands what the mayor is doing.

She's looking at selling the four houses the city has condemned. If she can't find a buyer, she'll demolish the two that are in the worst shape, eliminating a little piece of the rot and mold that is eating many of the older buildings in Tuskegee.

"They're trying to get rid of those unsightly buildings," she said.

The Advertiser: www.montgomeryadvertiser.com