City Council's Consideration - Eminent domain to cure blight? Wichita KS Eagle, 9/25/06

By Brent D Wistrom

Where Wichita's housing director Mary Kay Vaughn sees a chance to rebuild faltering neighborhoods, some property rights advocates see an opening for big government to snatch away people's homes.

Early discussions about creating a redevelopment authority in Wichita have sparked polarized opinions.

The Wichita City Council is considering setting up a five-member redevelopment authority that could acquire rundown properties and turn them over to developers who want to renovate them or build new houses, apartments or businesses in their place.

The authority would get the properties by buying them from willing sellers, buying tax-foreclosed properties, or forcing unwilling property owners to sell their homes through eminent domain.

That could vastly improve some neighborhoods that are striving for improvement, Vaughn said.

As it is now, neighborhood groups often create plans calling for more homeownership, less blight and more attractive businesses. But they don't always get the follow-through they deserve, she said.

"It's just a shame that so many people would be involved in really thorough reviews of what they want and not be able to go forward," she said.

The redevelopment authority would focus solely on that, eventually leading to renewed neighborhoods, Vaughn said.

Flaws of urban renewal
Not everyone is convinced this plan will benefit Wichitans.

Karl Peterjohn, executive director of the Kansas Taxpayers Network, which advocates for tax reductions, said Wichita should look more closely at the failures of urban renewal, an effort in the mid-20th century to revitalize city cores that has been severely criticized for uprooting neighborhoods, especially poor or black neighborhoods, and replacing them with commercial development.

"Urban renewal didn't work and didn't achieve the good intentions that many people had," he said. "We're going to create a new city bureaucracy. I'm afraid we're going to repeat past mistakes."

A better solution may be to focus on reducing crime, he said, adding, "Blight is a result, not a cause."

Of particular concern is the potential for the city to use eminent domain to take people's homes, said Alan Cobb, director of the Kansas branch of Americans for Prosperity, which advocates for limited government.

"This proposal raises all kinds of red flags," Cobb wrote in an e-mail. "Until I know more, I am concerned about the potential abuse of the power of eminent domain here.

"I think we need more private property ownership to turn around neighborhoods, not less," he said. "Not having security in the ownership of your property is hardly economic development."

Power of eminent domain
For now, government agencies in Kansas can force people to sell their property for an economic development project even if the property is not blighted.

That was affirmed in a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year in which 15 homeowners fought to stay on about an acre and a half of a 90-acre plot that the city of New London, Conn., wanted to turn over to private developers for office buildings and condos.

But that power will be restricted in Kansas starting in July 2007. That's when a new law takes effect requiring agencies to get approval from the Legislature to force people out.

Unsafe property could still be condemned and torn down. And property could still be taken if it's for public purposes, like Wichita's forthcoming downtown arena or utility lines.

City Manager George Kolb said Wichita and other cities will go to the Legislature next year to try to secure the right to use eminent domain to obtain blighted properties.

Even without that power, a redevelopment authority could succeed by using other tools like equity partnerships that allow landowners and building owners to share profits, Kolb said.

The city is also looking into whether it can purchase tax-foreclosed properties before they go to auction. It's not yet clear if that would require a change in state law, Kolb said.

The authority would require at least $1 million in start-up money to buy property, Kolb said. That money has been set aside in the capital improvements fund.

The authority could get additional funding by channeling parking fees from city-owned lots to the program and by collecting fees from any bonds the authority issues.

Eventually, Kolb said, the authority should become self-sufficient, selling property the city owns and maybe even charging consulting services to developers.

Not always a popular tool
In Kansas City, Mo., the city has eminent-domain powers but doesn't often use them, said Joe Egan, executive director of the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority in Kansas City.

Instead, Kansas City's authority, which has been active for more than half a century, mostly offers tax abatements, which freeze the tax rates for 10 years on a deteriorating property that a developer wants to fix up but can't afford to without incentives.

Eminent domain is a politically problematic tool that not even developers who stand to benefit from it like to use, Egan said.

"It's not the tool of choice for most developers. It's just too much of a headache," he said. "I would think that would be a similar case as Wichita puts it together."

Wichita KS Eagle: http://www.kansas.com