West vows to fight proposed expansion of eminent domain: Dallas TX Morning News, 3/24/07

S. Dallas residents blast effort to give cities more power to seize property

By Paul Meyer

[Texas] State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, pledged Friday evening to fight possible legislation expanding government power to take private property after impassioned criticism from hundreds of South Dallas residents who stand to be affected.

A town hall meeting with state Sen. Royce West (right) drew hundreds of South Dallas residents Friday to the Juanita Craft Recreation Center. Residents were largely critical of a plan to give the city more authority to seize property in blighted areas. Officials with the Dallas-based Foundation for Community Empowerment have been lobbying Texas lawmakers to broaden the government's ability to acquire private land through eminent domain. They want to give cities the authority to take over property in large areas deemed blighted and pass it to private developers for commercial and residential projects.

The foundation's proposal was specifically prompted by redevelopment plans for the Frazier Courts neighborhood of South Dallas, a 1,100-acre area plagued by poverty and unemployment.

But on Friday, about 300 community members appeared largely critical of the project and an accompanying legislative proposal, speaking out during a community meeting at a local recreation center gymnasium. The criticism, tinged with memories of historical neglect and families displaced by previous government property seizures, climaxed when state Rep. Terri Hodge, D-Dallas, spoke out.

"Which one of you has the nerve to be sponsoring an eminent domain bill in my district," Ms. Hodge said, addressing Mr. West and others. "Every one of my colleagues in the House has told me they're not sponsoring this legislation."

Prospects in Austin remain uncertain. Numerous bills addressing eminent domain were filed this session, but many would further restrict the practice.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that cities can use eminent domain for private development to generate tax revenue. The ruling prompted a national backlash, as state legislatures moved to guard against land grabs. Texas legislators approved a law restricting the use of eminent domain for private economic development.

Though that law says eminent domain can be used in blighted areas, it is unclear when that would apply, said Larry Casto, the chief lobbyist for the city of Dallas.

After Friday's debate, Mr. West said it's clear the vast majority of Frazier Courts residents are against the proposal as it stands now.

"It's real clear to me there's more education that needs to be done," he said.

The issue, however, is likely far from dead, said Antong Lucky, a board member of Frazier Revitalization Inc. The group is an arm of the Foundation for Community Empowerment, which is spearheading the plans for Frazier Courts.

"I think it goes back to having discussions with the community," Mr. Lucky said of the next step. "I doubt that it kills the legislation."

Mr. Lucky said that without the new redevelopment tools, the big winners are the slumlords and drug dealers.

And some at Friday's meeting said they can still be persuaded.

Larry Jefferson, pastor of Faith Memorial church, said he was leaning toward supporting the plans if there was a mandatory investment back into the community and other assurances for affordable housing and minority-owned businesses. Without those guarantees, he said, dangers loom.

"You start separate and unequal all over again," he said. "The people who are across the street in the housing projects can't afford a cup of the Starbucks coffee."

Dallas TX Morning News: http://www.dallasnews.com