Whitty says eminent domain could halt LNG bid : Fall River MA Herald News, 9/21/06

By Gregg M. Miliote

With the proposed liquefied natural gas import terminal moving forward into the permitting phase, [Fall River MA] City Council President William F. Whitty is calling for a new look at the potential for using eminent domain to stop the project in its tracks.

Whitty filed a resolution with his fellow city councilors Wednesday morning asking them to support a measure that would call on local, state, and federal officials to begin the process of taking the Weaver's Cove site by eminent domain.

"Let's face it," Whitty said. "(Hess LNG) has been successful during the regulatory review process. They have adjusted the project in response to efforts to stop the development and they are moving forward in spite of everyone's opposition."

Whitty's resolution specifically states Fall River should "assume the leadership role" in initiating the eminent domain process. He also calls on federal and state officials from Massachusetts and Rhode Island to include line items in their budgets for the purpose of purchasing the land for public use.

But Mayor Edward M. Lambert Jr. said he respectfully disagrees with Whitty's plan. He said even if the City Council throws its full support behind the resolution during its meeting next Tuesday, he will not go forward with plans for eminent domain at this time.

"This is clearly not the time to propose writing a 50 or 70 million dollar check to Hess LNG. Let's beat them without giving them any money," Lambert argued. "It's not very wise to start up a losing strategy, when we already have several winning strategies in place."

Lambert pointed to the numerous legal challenges the city has undertaken and the successful attempt to keep the Old Brightman Street Bridge standing as some of the "winning strategies" being utilized to defeat the project.

However, Whitty asserted the time to move on eminent domain is now, and said he is confident the city has the right to seize the land.

"If any project meets the criteria for eminent domain, this is it," Whitty said.

Whitty said his resolution is being filed at this time because Hess LNG has been successful in receiving clearance to move forward with the project recently from both state and federal agencies.

He said his resolution could help to stop the project, "end the fear in the community" and convert the property to public use, such as a waterfront park or a commuter rail station.

"Take the land. Stop the project. End the fear," Whitty exclaimed. "Eminent domain has been talked about before, and I feel it is time to act on it."

The idea of taking the land by eminent domain was first discussed publicly by former mayoral candidate F. George Jacome during his bid last year to unseat Lambert.

Jacome renewed his call for the use of eminent domain this January, saying the best defense is a great offense.

By seizing the land, Jacome said the city will become the aggressor.

"If we have the land, it will be the first time in the history of this issue in Fall River that we will be on the offensive," Jacome told The Herald News in January. "It's going to be us versus them, and we are going to have to play hardball.

"The only thing that is going to stop this project dead in the water is to seize this land. We have to take it and take it now."

Like Whitty, Jacome envisioned converting the North Main Street property into a transportation hub for the region with a commuter rail stop, a bus terminal and a water taxi service.

But critics of the use of eminent domain in this case have said the city may actually be weakening its opposition to the project if it seizes the land.

Eminent domain attorneys like Boston-based attorney John S. Leonard have stated the courts will not look favorably upon a move made by the city after Hess LNG already began developing the land for the LNG import terminal.

Leonard told The Herald News that such a seizure at this point would be a "bad faith" move and would likely put the city back "on the defensive for trying to establish that their motives are not for trying to stop the LNG facility."

Lambert echoed those sentiments, saying a move by the city to seize the land is "probably not allowed under Massachusetts law."

"Proposing this now is just like giving up," Lambert said. "I am not going to change our strategy mid-stream."

Fall River MA Herald News: http://www.zwire.com