4/15/2007

Law protecting residents might hurt community: Hampton Roads VA Daily Press, 4/14/07

Tighter eminent domain rules could keep some people in a stinky neighborhood

By Veronica Gorley Chufo

Stricter eminent domain laws may threaten the relocation of about 200 Pinewood Heights [VA] residents, who endure foul odors and noise from a nearby meatpacking plant and other industries.

State lawmakers this month passed changes to the state's eminent domain law, which allows local governments to take private property if they pay for it.

The state housing department is evaluating the changes and what it will mean for projects such as Smithfield's, a spokeswoman said.

"We are anxiously waiting to find out what effect this is going to have on our project," Smithfield Town Manager Peter Stephenson said.

The changes might make it tougher for governments to take properties and carry out redevelopment projects across the state, including ones in Smithfield, Newport News and Suffolk.

"It's used very sparingly, but in cases of public necessity, it's a valuable tool," Stephenson said. "Nobody wants to see it abused. Unfortunately, the cases where it's abused have brought about this knee-jerk reaction."

It's a big victory for individuals' property rights for landowners, said Joseph T. Waldo, a Norfolk-based lawyer who represents landowners in eminent-domain cases.

"Virginia is a very harsh state when it comes to property rights," Waldo said. "The bill is a major step in the right direction."

In November, Smithfield agreed to accept a grant to improve the living conditions of Pinewood Heights residents by relocating about half of them. The rest would be moved in later years.

But the town didn't enter a contract with the state housing department until February. The new law affects plans adopted after Jan. 1. The town plans to ask the state attorney general whether the changes apply to the project.

The amendment narrows the definition of blight. Before, a property that wasn't blighted could be taken as part of a neighborhood redevelopment project if the surrounding properties are blighted, Waldo said.

Now, each property must be ruled blighted, which the new law defines as "any property that endangers the public health or safety in its condition at the time of the filing of the petition for condemnation and is (i) a public nuisance or (ii) an individual commercial, industrial or residential structure or improvement that is beyond repair or unfit for human occupancy or use."

In Pinewood Heights, not all of the houses are in disrepair. Some have recently been upgraded.

With eminent domain, the town would be able to buy those houses at fair-market value. But if they're not deemed blighted, then the landowner dictates how much he or she is willing to sell them for.

"It's just going to drive the cost of the project through the roof, and that comes back on the taxpayers," Stephenson said. "To me, that's the sad irony of it."

James Gurganus, executive director of the Williamsburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority, agreed.

"Small towns and old cities are going to become slums," Gurganus said. "The towns and cities cannot afford to rehabilitate the properties and neighborhoods on their own."

For Newport News, that new definition could put stumbling blocks before the expansion of Madison Heights, where the city has demolished blighted houses between 26th and 28th streets to make way for new affordable houses.

"It could really cripple the housing authority's ability to get rid of blight," said Derek Kahn, the housing agency's director of community development.

In Suffolk, the city is working on an affordable-housing project called The Fairgrounds. The changes might make it harder to put together a site to redevelop, said Clarissa McAdoo, executive director of the Suffolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

Pinewood Heights homeowner Phyllis Townsend said she was disturbed to learn that the changes might threaten relocation.

"They don't consider us as taxpayers, as a neighborhood," Townsend said. "They need to come out here and stay a week and see for themselves - the sounds we hear, the smells we put up with and now, this time of year, the bugs are bad."

If the town offers decent places to live, it shouldn't need to use eminent domain, Townsend said.

Cases where landlords are unwilling to part with the rent they make from houses might call for eminent domain, Stephenson said.

Eminent domain is a worthwhile tool for redevelopment or improving residents' lives, but it can be used unnecessarily, Waldo said.

"If you've got a blight situation and it would benefit the community and you would treat them fairly and compensate them, it would be a good thing," he said, "but we should never force people to leave their homes."

Stephenson said Pinewood Heights is a prime example of the benefit of eminent domain.

"Because of the industrial location of the neighborhood, it needs to be relocated," Stephenson said, "but this may preclude that from happening."


Hampton Roads VA Daily Press: http://www.dailypress.com