Rules tighten for eminent domain: York (PA) Daily Record, 5/1/06

Stricter guidelines are expected to slow York's redevelopment efforts

By Mike Hoover

A baseball stadium and a massive effort to redevelop more than 29 acres of old industrial land in downtown York would be in jeopardy, if not dead, under proposed changes to the state's eminent domain law.

The new rules would eliminate a provision that allows the city to take properties by eminent domain to improve the social and economic well being of the community.

The city has used the criteria in approving plans to build a $29.5 million stadium and the Northwest Triangle Initiative, a redevelopment project expected to generate hundreds of jobs and millions in tax dollars and attract more than $100 million in investment.

Because the plans are already approved, the law will not impact the projects, said Matt Jackson, the city's economic development director and redevelopment authority coordinator. He believes local governments will still have 120 days after Gov. Ed Rendell signs the bill to get approval of redevelopment plans to take properties under the current rules.

"Under the new guidelines, the answer is probably no, we couldn't have moved forward with plans as quickly and easily. It would certainly be more difficult," Jackson said.

The state changes are in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June in which the city of New London, Conn., took 15 homes to build a mixed-use waterfront development to boost the local economy. The decision drew protests, prompting many states to change their laws on the government's ability to take private property.

Under the new proposal, a property can be considered blighted if it is a health or safety issue, abandoned or tax-delinquent for two years.

Currently, most of the city is considered blighted based on income guidelines and housing conditions. This has allowed the city to impose a higher and better use standard in initiating redevelopment areas involving entire neighborhoods.

The city cited economic and social well-being criteria to take three properties needed for the stadium project. It would be difficult to meet new criteria for some of the 23 properties because they were in use and current on taxes, Jackson said. Most of the properties were acquired through friendly negotiations, he said.

Citing another example, Jackson said the city would have had difficulty acquiring Keystone Color Works, a key property in the Northwest Triangle. If the owner balked at selling, the city's redevelopment authority would have little leverage under the new rules.

"No one can argue Keystone Color Works is a thriving economic generator but is still hanging on and is still on the tax rolls," Jackson said.

The city can still take blighted and delinquent properties, but the process will be more time consuming, more selective and more expensive in legal fees and acquisition cost, he said.

Local governments may begin "land banking" or acquiring one or two blighted properties at a time until the new standard of having over 50 percent of an area, constituting 50 percent of the land area, assembled to designate a large redevelopment area, he said.

Property owners could block revitalization efforts by refusing to sell or demanding prices well over appraised and assessed property values, he said.

"This could up the ante. A lone holdout could drive up the price or destroy the whole project," Jackson said.

Council President Cameron Texter said the new law better protects property rights by making it more difficult to acquire properties. But cities sometimes need the tools to wipe out blight quickly and effectively, he said without delays or more legal hurdles.

"It will make it more difficult to redevelop the city and redevelop properties," Texter said.

York Daily Record: www.ydr.com