Eminent domain: vital urban tool: The Commercial Appeal (Memphis TN), 3/19/06


By Henry Turley

Last week four good, local homebuilders started work on 78 new homes in the old area of North Memphis that is now known as Uptown.

These homes are being built for families who need them. Some have been living in public housing projects and earned their way out. Some have incomes too modest to buy homes solely through the private sector, but they still want to live close to their work, their friends or their extended family. Some of the houses will be available to other families, no matter their income.

The families that fill these new homes will live along rebuilt streets that they will share with other residents who never left the neighborhood but deplored the decline it suffered over the past 50 years.

Go look at Uptown. Try to remember what that area was like five years ago. If you can't remember, ask the police officers who patrol the neighborhood or the pastors of its various churches or any of the neighbors in its older homes.

Uptown's better now — for all its residents, and for Memphis. And this part of North Memphis could not have been resurrected without the use of condemnation, known to lawyers as "eminent domain." That tool is necessary in redeveloping any pre-developed place, as it allows the city to assemble enough contiguous property to make the area suitable for new investment.

When The Commercial Appeal's Viewpoints editors asked me to write a column justifying the need for local governments' condemnation authority against the sacred concept of private property rights, I almost wished they had asked me to defend al-Qaida instead. One concept — the forced taking of property from its owners — is so ugly, so un-American, while the other is linked to our most precious liberties.

The only thing I knew to do was to outline some results of the inner-city redevelopment that has been made possible by Memphis' use of eminent domain authority, and to tell how condemnation really works — whose property is taken, why and how.

First, the city can't just buy property from unwilling owners on a random basis. It can initiate eminent domain procedures only in neighborhoods that suffer from the prevalence of slums and blight. And then only if the properties taken are used in ways that serve the public good. And then only after a plan for achieving that betterment has been laid out and approved by the city and county administrations, the City Council and the County Commission. All of this must be done in accordance with the principles of the state legislation called the Community Redevelopment Act.

You begin to wonder how it's done at all.

Here's what typically happened as we assembled the property to develop Uptown. (And by the way, the Belz-Turley partnership that was the master developer for the Uptown revitalization project didn't buy the property; it was bought by the Memphis Housing Authority through its land bank. The Belz-Turley partnership works in the same way accountants and lawyers do; we provide our expertise and experience and are paid fees. I call it working for wages.)

We sent agents into the neighborhood with instructions to buy vacant lots so we could build new houses where the old ones had been abandoned, burned or deteriorated beyond repair. These lots are easy to find: That's where the weeds and junk accumulate. Fully half of the area lots in Uptown were abandoned when we started.

Who owns such property and why don't they build a home on it? Most frequently the owners are descendants of someone who lived on the lot years ago. Often, there are so many fractional owners that rebuilding is impossible. In many cases, the owner is just long gone, having moved out of Memphis.

The MHA, under court supervision, finds these people and pays them full market value for their lot. Most of the time the property owners are surprised and pleased. But others assert that their lots are more valuable than the appraisers believe, provoking a round of reappraisals and negotiations that usually lead to agreement. Court-supervised condemnation is rarely used.

But then there are speculators and slumlords. Their methods are complicated and sometimes devious. Suffice it to say, they anticipate the city's rebuilding plan for the neighborhood, buy property and manipulate — to their advantage and the public's detriment — the rules that protect property owners.

Without government's right of eminent domain I believe that substantially all development would be forced to the far perimeter of the city where parcels of land large enough for significant development can be easily found. When development occurs there we all pay for the roads, utilities, schools and other public functions to serve that new area. At the same time we continue to pay the increasing cost of infrastructure maintenance for the city's older, blighted areas.

Developing at the far reaches of the city's perimeter while ignoring and abandoning its core neighborhoods continues to be Memphis' dominant development pattern. Unless that pattern changes, it will lead ineluctably to the city's decline. Drive the city's older neighborhoods, read about its budget crises and then consider why eminent domain power is an urban revitalization tool Memphis cannot afford to do without.

Commercial Appeal: http://www.commercialappeal.com

Henry Turley is a Memphis developer and a partner with Jack Belz in developing the public-private Uptown revitalization project in North Memphis