Domain bill's effect unclear on Lynchburg plan: Richmond VA Times-Dispatch, 6/20/07

By Conor Reilly

A bill yanking federal money from localities that abuse their eminent-domain power recently passed the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture.

But it's unclear if the legislation, co-sponsored by Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, R-6th, would affect an important tool used in Lynchburg to improve run-down properties.

Goodlatte said in a news release that the bill responds to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2005 Kelo decision that allowed an economically depressed Connecticut town to take private land and give it to a private company.

"The court essentially erased any protection of private property as understood by the founders of our nation," he said in a news release.

Called the Strengthening the Ownership of Private Property Act, or STOPP, Goodlatte's bill would prohibit federal economic-development assistance that "uses the power of eminent domain to obtain property for private commercial development or . . . for economic-development purposes."

The proposed law does not specifically allow localities to take a property because it is a blight, according to Goodlatte spokeswoman Kathryn Rexrode.

"It's my understanding that local governments have other tools at their disposal to address blight," Rexrode said.

Lynchburg and its housing authority are looking into whether the bill would stifle the city's "spot-blight" program, designed to get run-down properties out of the hands of irresponsible owners and into the hands of responsible ones.

Lynchburg City Attorney Walter Erwin said Thursday that the language in the bill is muddy and could jeopardize key federal grant money used for projects, including the Bluff Walk Hotel, and funding for the Lynchburg Community Action Group and the housing authority.

"I just can't figure out why the federal government wants to protect blighted properties," Erwin said.

Although it is a concern, he said, the bill says eminent domain would have to be used to further "economic development." Spot blight would likely not qualify under that definition, so the federal money might not be at risk.

The city began using its program in 1999 and has dealt with 60 blighted properties in and around downtown Lynchburg. The city had to resort to eminent domain in seven of those cases.

Spot-blight elimination, Erwin said, raised the assessed values of those 60 properties by $1 million.

Lynchburg officials have said eminent domain is important because it can help preserve the city's historic character.

Localities can already take and demolish houses when safety is a factor. But spot blight allows the city to intervene before the houses must be razed.

Losing the threat of eminent domain could mean losing the last available method localities have to compel property owners to take care of their properties.

Richmond VA Times-Dispatch: http://www.inrich.com