El Paso faces eminent domain opposition: El Paso TX Times, 5/10/07

By Ramon Bracamontes

El Paso is going through the same stresses that the City of Arlington went through two years ago when it began preparations to build the new Dallas Cowboys stadium and needed the power of eminent domain to get it done.

"If it wasn't for eminent domain, this project would still be stalled and it might have never gotten done," said Roger Venables, real estate service manager for the City of Arlington.

In 2004, the voters in Arlington overwhelmingly voted to spend $325 million in tax money to help build a new Dallas Cowboys stadium in their city.

When it came time to secure the 135 acres needed for the stadium, a handful of property owners - who together owned about 10 percent of the land - refused to sell.

"We didn't need eminent domain to buy the majority of the property," Venable said. "It was the smaller, residential pieces that we needed help with."

Today, the $650 million stadium is under construction and on schedule to open in 2009.

The same debate over the use of eminent domain for revitalization/private projects that occurred in Arlington two years ago is currently going on in El Paso with regards to the Downtown revitalization plan: 74 percent of El Pasoans favor Downtown revitalization, according to an El Paso Times poll. However, the same poll shows that 64 percent of the voters are opposed to the use of eminent domain.

Matthew McElroy, associate director for the Institute for Policy and Economic Development at UTEP, said that public policy on a million-dollar project such as Downtown revitalization should not be based on the results of a poll that had such a small sample.

"Some public policy decisions are more important than the results of one poll," he said. "This project is something that deserves a much harder look."

McElroy, who has studied the revitalization of other cities, said that most keep the use of eminent domain available so that a single property owner cannot stop a major project.

Downtown business owner Jerry Rosenbaum, who heads the Land Grab Opponents, said it is a shame that the plan is proceeding.

"It would be better to take eminent domain completely off the table, try to heal the wounds and then proceed," he said.

He also said it is unfair to compare it to the Dallas Cowboy project.

"I don't agree that a stadium is for public use," he said. "But they also got a waiver to use eminent domain and they started before the law was changed."

The Texas Legislature is currently debating the uses of eminent domain and the definition of what a blighted area is. Under state law, cities right now can use eminent domain for public projects and to get rid of blight.

West-Central city Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who is up for re-election on Saturday, said the Downtown revitalization plan and the use of eminent domain is not a big issue on the campaign trail.

"It's only an issue because some opponents keep talking about the use eminent domain," O'Rourke said.

O'Rourke's opponent, Trini Acevedo, has said in the past that O'Rourke is compromised on the Downtown issue. Acevedo is also listed by the Land Grab Opponents as a candidate who will protect property rights.

South El Paso resident, Juana Espinosa, who lives in the 600 block of S. Oregon, said the Downtown plan is one that residents need to consider before they support it or oppose it.

"There is a lot of misinformation going around and who knows what it will look like," she said, "but if it helps improve the housing and keeps us a community, then we should support it. Improving the quality of life is what it should be about."

The Downtown Revitalization Plan has been debated throughout El Paso for more than a year. The debate began in April, the Paso Del Norte Group unveiled a $750,000 study that led to a blueprint on how Downtown and South El Paso could be revitalized.

The plan calls for a new retail district and improved housing.

The plan immediately drew criticism because it called for the demolition of some buildings and suggested that eminent domain be used to acquire the land needed to make the plan attractive to major developers.

El Paso TX Times: http://www.elpasotimes.com