Eminent Domain in Rio Rancho: Rio Rancho NM Observer, 1/12/07

By Tom Treweek

Currently, there is no topic in Rio Rancho so controversial as eminent domain. There are no issues that immediately raise people's tempers such as blighting. And there are few topics that are so misunderstood.

In this column, I will not attempt to convince anyone to change their view or present any argument as more valid than another. I simply wish to clarify the issue, to spell out the facts, so that when we argue, we are all working from the "same sheet of music" (wait, that's my next topic).

We are not talking about condemning property to build a road, a school, a fire station or anything like that. The use of eminent domain that has infuriated the public is that which refers to blighting vacant land in order to build a master-planned community. That is, the city's taking of privately owned land (often for the reason of antiquated platting), giving the owner fair market value (which brings up another argument), and turning it over to a developer to build a housing development.

The first misconception I want to clarify is the idea that a blighted area can only refer to a slum. Many people have spoken before the city council arguing that the land considered for blighting is a beautiful area. I would agree with them that Rio Rancho has many picturesque undeveloped areas, but that is not the issue at hand.

According to state statute, "blighted area" can refer to a slum, but it can also mean an area with a "predominance of defective or inadequate street layout (or) faulty lot layout in relation to size," which are the reasons the city has so far turned to eminent domain.

When AMREP began designing Rio Rancho's communities, long before the city incorporated, the lots were placed almost in a haphazard fashion. This is not a concern for most of the landowners, but there are some whose property, through no fault of their own, is located entirely within an arroyo. (Remember, many AMREP officials went to jail because of their actions in selling Rio Rancho.)

Those whose land is in an arroyo will never be able to build their dream house or sell the land for a profit.

The other side of that argument is that by blighting vacant land, the city is denying others the ability to do just that, build their dream house or make a profit. There are people who bought their property in the first days of the community and plan to build their retirement home or a house for their children. They could also be holding onto it to make a profit. Regardless, those people are arguing that they have the right to keep their property for any reason.

The city's argument is that in encouraging a master-planned community through the use of eminent domain, they can require a higher standard in housing, some uniformity in construction, and installation of adequate infrastructure. By doing that, not only does the city feel it is creating a better community for its residents, the quality of the neighborhood would elevate the values of properties surrounding it.

Development Services Director Rob Anderson also wanted me to convey the difficulty for individual landowners to install the necessary infrastructure: power lines, water and sewage. In many of the city's undeveloped areas, there are no utilities waiting to be tapped into. A landowner who wanted these necessities would have to pay for them to be constructed from then nearest junction point to his or her property. That is a small order for a developer creating an entire community, but it is difficult for most individuals.

Technically, if a person were to install the utility lines alone, he or she could charge the future neighbors to connect to those lines, but if there are no neighbors ready to begin building, that person could wait a long time.

I do know of one home that is entirely "off the grid," but I don't know how much it cost to install the solar panels for electricity, build a well, and install a septic system. I imagine it wasn't cheap.

Wells and septic tanks may seem like a good idea to most people - it would be much cheaper than installing a long water line from a mile away - but the state government is constantly dangling the threat of banning private wells, leaving no way to get water without connecting to the city's system.

Although I cannot fault the city's logic in this matter, I also cannot discount the landowner's cries, their basic message, that ownership is ownership and no one should be able to violate that right.

Some of the issues surrounding eminent domain seem to have been addressed by the city in its pending policy, especially the concerns over fair market value. If approved, the policy would ensure that three separate appraisers give their approval to the property value - two for the initial estimates and one to oversee the process.

Actually, there are a lot of new ideas in that policy, including alternatives to the simple purchase of the land. The policy encourages the developer to explore and offer some alternatives to the landowner, including equity sharing or exchanging of lots.

The city has already banned the use of eminent domain for economic development on developed property - it can still be blighted if it is a safety hazard or for other reasons. The proposed policy also increases the amount of notice required for those in the proposed redevelopment area.

The proposed policy - which city staff maintains goes further than other states in protecting citizens' rights without, of course, banning the practice altogether - is available on the city's Web site in the minutes of the Jan. 10 meeting.

And because that item was postponed, the public will have one more chance to give input on it. It will be included on the agenda for the Jan. 24 meeting. So far, only about a dozen people have addressed the governing body on this issue, even though the city has already held one work session and one public hearing.

You can be assured that the city will take suggestions seriously, as some have already been worked into that policy. But that cannot happen if residents and landowners don't voice their ideas. If you don't show up and speak your mind, I don't want to hear your complaints if you ever get a notice that your land is being blighted.

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