Eminent domain plays a key role in fighting blight: Lynchburg VA News & Advance, 3/19/07


For years, [Lynchburg VA] City Council and city housing officials have worked to get rundown properties out of the hands of irresponsible (and usually out-of-town) owners and into the hands of those who would restore the property to a habitable, attractive condition. Their successes improved older neighborhoods throughout the city and raised property values.

It's called the "spot blight" program and applies to other localities, as well. The program allows local governments to purchase - at fair market value - dilapidated or deteriorated private property and transfer ownership to a new private purchaser who agrees to restore it.

Since it began in 1999, the city has used the program on 60 blighted properties, increasing those property values by some $1 million.

But in its rush to do "something" about the 2005 Supreme Court ruling that allowed New London, Conn., to take private homes through eminent domain for economic development that would generate more jobs and tax revenues, the General Assembly approved a bill that would negate the spot blight program. City Council and the Lynchburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority have sent letters to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine asking him to amend the legislation to protect the spot blight program. They make a good case.

The Kelo v. New London case centered on efforts by New London city officials to condemn 15 privately owned houses in the middle of a 90-acre neighborhood. The government-controlled New London Development Corp., initiated condemnation proceedings using a liberal definition of "blight." After the condemnation, the agency would then turn the entire tract of land over to Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, which planned to build an office and research park on the site.

While Connecticut lawmakers have decided it was proper to use eminent domain to take property for economic development efforts that ultimately benefited a private corporation, that has not been the case in Virginia. In fact, as City Attorney Walter Erwin has pointed out, Virginia's Constitution says nothing about taking property for economic development.

Erwin agrees that eminent domain is an emotional issue, but said he has never seen even one Virginia case that approached the situation in New London.

In an effort to restrict the use of eminent domain by a locality, the legislation advanced by state Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, would change the definition of blight from a property that endangers public health "because the structure ... is dilapidated" to a property that "is vacant and constitutes a public nuisance" or "is beyond repair or unfit for human habitation."

City officials worry that the tighter definition of blight is so restrictive that it will eliminate the spot blight program. They have asked the governor to provide for a broader definition of blight to preserve the program. Without such an amendment, the city could lose the spot blight program that has proven so useful over the past seven years.

Erwin said state lawmakers may have missed the point of spot blight. "The city wants to preserve rather than demolish our housing stock," he told Conor Reilly of The News & Advance.

But if the city has to wait until a structure is "beyond repair," as the legislation calls for, cities will have no choice but to hold off on eminent domain proceedings until the homes are worthless.

Ed McCann, director of the city housing authority, agreed. "The alternative to our program is demolition of houses," he said. "We've done that before; we've demolished a lot of houses. We think there's a better way now."

Erwin said he was surprised by the Assembly's approval of the measure, especially since it passed a resolution in 1994 outlining the benefits of the spot blight program. That study says that dilapidated properties create havens for crime, impair growth and cause local businesses to leave such areas.

"All those problems are just as true today as they were back when the study was done," he said.

Some lawmakers expressed concern that cities were using the spot blight program to increase their real estate tax base. McCann exploded that theory, saying that increased property values are simply a byproduct of the program's main goal, which is to eliminate blight.

And that's the point the governor and the assembly - in its veto session - must focus upon. The spot blight program is not about an overreaching local government. It is about improving neighborhoods that are threatened by the existence of that blight. Amending the bill would be a step toward saving those neighborhoods.

Lynchburg VA News & Advance: http://www.newsadvance.com