New eminent domain law will help renewal effort: Pittsburgh (PA) Tribune-Review, 5/21/06

By Ron DaParma

Urban renewal efforts have been good and bad, but Arthur P. Ziegler Jr. of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation believes there's now hope for more of the good because the state has adopted a law governing the taking of private property for renewal.

Ziegler, president of the South Side-based preservationist organization, applauded when the Legislature passed and Gov. Ed Rendell this month signed two companion bills designed to clarify the state's eminent domain law.

"We would like to see people protected from use of eminent domain," said Ziegler. "We have seen it used or threatened frequently here, and some of the results have been negative."

As examples, he points to efforts in the 1950s and 1960s that he calls some of the "worst cases of urban renewal we have seen."

Those include efforts to revitalize the city's Lower Hill District (the area near Mellon Arena), the development of Allegheny Center on the North Side, and the "Circle" in East Liberty — a project that diverted most vehicular traffic from the main Penn Avenue business district.

"And of course, the threat of it was used by the administration (of Mayor Tom Murphy) in various instances, including when he was developing plans for the Fifth-Forbes business district," Ziegler said.

"This bill protects the rights of property owners above all other interests," said Rendell. "Eminent domain should be used in a community's best interests, not the specialized interests of a few."

One section of the legislation amends the state's eminent domain code by prohibiting, with some exceptions, an agency's ability to take private property in order to use it for private enterprise.

It provides standards that single, blighted properties must meet before being taken by eminent domain. It also extends the criteria to include properties that are unmarketable, pose environmentally hazardous conditions, or have multiple instances of blight. Multiple properties can be taken by eminent domain if they also meet geographic conditions related to a blighted area.

The new law also says no political subdivision can use eminent domain authority against land in another municipality without the approval of the other political subdivision. It also outlines land condemnation procedures.

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