Talk of eminent domain stirs fears in Ogden: Salt Lake (Salt Lake City UT) Tribune, 7/30/06

Humble but proud: Some residents of a neighborhood just west of Wall Avenue aren't ready to move

By Jacob Santini

This pocket of Ogden probably isn't the vision of the American dream.

It's old. Two sets of bone-rattling railroad tracks cross the street. Some yards are unkempt, and several homes are deteriorating.

For Christina Rodriguez, this is home. She has no plans to leave.

But Rodriguez could be vetoed in months to come. The Utah League of Cities and Towns, along with a handful of the state's most influential communities, is studying a way to bring back the power of eminent domain - the tool that allows government to force sales of land - to spur private development.

"It makes me sad to even hear that," Rodriguez said. "If we had wanted to be rich, we'd be up there negotiating, negotiating and renegotiating."

The little neighborhood that sits just west of Ogden's Wall Avenue, between 2100 South and 2200 South, is ground zero for the eminent-domain battle.

Two years ago, Wal-Mart wanted the land. City officials sided with the world's largest retailer and believed the 21-acre development would help fill city coffers and spur a wide swath of economic develop- ment.

Residents balked.

Some, like Rodriguez, said they weren't interested in selling.

Utah lawmakers scuttled that development in early 2005 when they stripped cities of the ability to condemn land for such purposes. Eminent domain was allowed only to make way for standard public works projects, such as roadways, electrical plants and schools.

And when the redevelopment agency (RDA) law was retooled earlier this year, lawmakers were more precise in their definition of what constitutes blight in a community.

"Nothing's happened," Ogden Mayor Matthew Godfrey said about the neighborhood. "That's the real issue. The area is still blighted."

Be clear: The league isn't moving with an eye on Ogden. It has its sites on urban cores that have deteriorated over the decades and now are blighted.

Eminent domain, city officials argue, is needed to help compile land for redevelopment.

"Use of eminent domain is very important when one property owner is holding out to jack up prices," said Salt Lake City Councilman Eric Jergensen. He heads a league committee looking at the issue.

Jergensen notes that the capital doesn't have anything to gain because its RDA project areas are too old to implement eminent domain.

The move to bring back eminent domain has support beyond urban communities. The state's Legislative Auditor General issued an analysis that supports bringing back condemnation powers for private use. The U.S. Supreme Court also has upheld the doctrine.

League officials argue they don't plan to try to bring eminent domain back as it was. They suggest language that would add more protection for property owners.

For instance: Two-thirds of the property owners within a project area would have to be willing sellers, cities would have to comply with a "necessity test" to ensure a project's need, and a supermajority of a city council must endorse the use of eminent domain.

"These are some ideas that were thrown out to discuss," said Lincoln Shurtz, a policy analyst for the league.

Shurtz understands the movement back to allowing condemnation works against what the public perceives about the issue.

"The perception [is] that government comes and takes their property and they don't get just compensation," Shurtz said.

That worry has the league toying with the concept of upping the payment price from market value to the cost of replacement.

Talk about reintroducing condemnation ignites new worries in the Ogden neighborhood.

"Some of us are happy with what we have," Rodriguez said. "I don't think the eminent-domain statute was made for this purpose."

Salt Lake Tribune: http://www.sltrib.com