Convention center task force member questions use of eminent domain in site selection: Midland TX Reporter-Telegram, 4/18/07

By Colin Guy

Convention center committee member Nelson Spear raised the question of whether or not eminent domain proceedings might be necessary to acquire property for a new convention center during the committee's meeting Tuesday, noting that residents would probably like to know if their vote contributes to the involuntary acquisition of private property.

During a discussion of potential site locations for a new convention center architect Mark Wellen, whose firm Rhotenberry-Wellen assisted with the convention center study, noted that several locations around town were considered in the study, but that downtown is probably the best site, in part because a successful convention center needs to be in close proximity to a high-quality hotel such as the Hilton Midland Plaza.

Spear noted that constructing a large facility downtown could require the displacement of existing properties and expressed concern that the city's eminent domain authority may be used if some property owners are reluctant to sell, something he said "kind of sticks in my craw."

"The public will want to know specifically if you'll keep that as a hold card or if you'll take that off the table," Spear said.

Wellen said the use of eminent domain is an issue that comes up with any large land acquisition and the use of eminent domain by municipalities is a "hot topic" around the country right now. However, he said, for the most part the situations in which people have become upset are when cities have taken private property and turned it over to the private sector. Midland Chamber of Commerce President John Breier noted that if property for the convention center was acquired through eminent domain that it would be the same principle as acquiring land for roads, bridges or other public amenities.

"People tend to triage these things... a highway or a public road may be higher on their triage (list)," Spear responded. "I can guarantee not everybody will put a convention center on top of their triage."

Committee member Jane Wolf said she does not expect that city officials will treat the issue of property rights lightly. By way of example she said that a number of years ago the city was in the process of widening Illinois Avenue and encountered two property owners near Midland High who did not want the city to cut into their front yards. The city agreed to work around them and did not make any changes until after the homeowners no longer occupied the houses, she said.

"I think our city has a history of being very considerate of property owners. ... I don't think they'll run over anybody," she said.

City officials told the Reporter-Telegram after the meeting they do not like the idea of using the city's eminent domain authority and would utilize it cautiously and only as a last resort if necessary. District 3 City Councilman Scott Dufford said he would never be comfortable with using eminent domain to take someone's property and hand it over to a private individual or company. He said he does not believe using eminent domain to acquire land for a convention center will become an issue, but that it is possible "you might find one or two holdouts."

Committee member Roy Gillean said he was one of about a dozen property owners who consulted with Midland Mayor Mike Canon regarding site selection for a convention center and it seemed as if there were only one or two people at the meeting who would be reluctant to sell their property voluntarily. At-large City Councilman Wes Perry told the Reporter-Telegram the only way eminent domain would be used is if a property owner was "trying to hold the city hostage."

"It's not something we want to do, but the other side of it is if you have someone that's not being reasonable that's not the right thing either," Perry said.

He said if the City Council decides to place a convention center bond proposal on the November ballot voters will be provided with a specific proposed location and a "pretty good" idea of what the cost would be. Canon told the Reporter-Telegram a specific location for a proposed convention center should be selected within the next 40 days.

Midland TX Reporter-Telegram: http://www.mywesttexas.com