Don’t Condemn Me: Knoxville TN Metro Pulse, 9/21/06

Officials discuss the likelihood of exercising eminent domain along the South Knox waterfront

By Mike Gibson

City Councilman Joe Hultquist doesn’t foresee problems with specific property owners in the South Knoxville waterfront redevelopment zone, but he does believe the city would be remiss if it didn’t remain open to the possibility of acquiring property via eminent domain.

“You have to look at that possibility when you have a redevelopment area,” Hultquist says. “You cannot not address it.”

The Knoxville South Waterfront Vision Plan adopted by City Council in April lays out a 20-year redevelopment strategy for the three-mile stretch of riverside property from Scottish Pike to Island Home near downtown. Its first phase calls for waterfront consultants to identify 12 priority public implementation projects as well as 12 priority private redevelopment sites.

But though city officials stress they are anxious to use persuasion and incentives to accomplish those projects, the fact remains that a number of different property owners with different interests will be affected by any plan the consultants submit. At some point, some landowners may prove unwilling to cooperate.

Knoxville Chief Operating Officer Dave Hill doesn’t believe the issue will come to a head, at least not any time soon. He says more than 12 sites for public projects have already been identified. Of the property owners contacted thus far, every one of them has indicated a willingness to work with the city, Hill says.

“We want to convince people that it’s much better to have a voluntary relationship than for us to exercise condemnation activity,” Hill says. “It’s about using the power of persuasion.”

Hill notes that the city has already negotiated to purchase 10 feet of right-of-way along Blount Avenue to facilitate a planned public riverwalk development; in another instance, city officials have expressed an interest in helping the Rinker Materials company on Blount with a possible relocation.

And at this stage of the plan, Hill says the city has enough options that it needn’t wrangle with individual property owners who might have other ideas. “We have a 20-year time horizon,” he says. “If someone isn’t prepared to redevelop now, it’s really not a big deal. We’ll just go to places where we have willing landowners.”

But Hultquist says there may be a need to use eminent domain at some point in the future. In such cases, the waterfront plan could leave city officials hamstrung, in that the rules it sets for acquiring property in the redevelopment zone are more restrictive than those set by state law. One difference, for example, is that the redevelopment zone only allows for condemnation of properties that are in an extreme state of dilapidation—moreso than would be required ordinarily.

“There are people out there who can draw these issues out for years,” he says. “I think we’re hearing now that people don’t want to see that.”

Hultquist says the worries over misuse of eminent domain stem from the mayoral administration of Victor Ashe and its waterfront redevelopment efforts in 1992. “It was a textbook case of how not to do it,” he says. “Things were done behind closed doors. There was a lack of communication. When this plan came around, people wanted to make sure this was not more of the same.

“But I think it’s becoming clear this is a very different process. We’ve been very forthright all along.”

The South Waterfront Oversight Committee will meet Thursday, Sept. 21 at 5 p.m. in the small assembly room of the City County Building.

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