Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Supreme Court’s ruling that local governments can take private property for commercial use is expected to bring a number of contested local projects — including the District’s plans to build a baseball stadium — closer to fruition.

The ruling angered property owners who could be displaced, including those who have fought plans to build the Washington Nationals’ new baseball stadium in Southeast near the Anacostia River waterfront. The court said a commercial venture that brings tax revenue or jobs to the city is a public good and, thus, is eligible to benefit from the power of eminent domain.

David A. Fuss, a partner at Wilkes Artis, which specializes in condemnation law, said the decision likely will result in condemnations at the stadium site and at the Skyland Shopping Center development area in Anacostia, another site where properties were condemned for a commercial development.

But Dale Cooter, an attorney representing one of the businesses on the baseball site, said he hopes the ruling actually may help his client’s case.

“The Supreme Court’s decision today is [on its face] disappointing, but in reality is good news,” he said. “It won’t support the use of the power of eminent domain to condemn property on the purposed stadium site.”

The court ruling said economic development plans must specifically designate the site to be condemned. Opponents contend the District’s development plan does not do that.

Attorney Elaine Mittleman, who represents several of the merchants and property owners on the Skyland Shopping Center property, said the case in which the court ruled is different from the Skyland situation and does not hurt her clients’ chances in a pending lawsuit seeking to hold on to their businesses.

But D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams praised the rulings and called eminent domain one of the most powerful tools city officials have to help restore neighborhoods.

“The redevelopment of the Skyland Shopping Center in Southeast Washington is an area where eminent domain could be used for the good of the entire community, since it would bring in 300 jobs and $3.3 million in new tax revenue annually,” Mr. Williams said.a

The National Capital Revitalization Corp. (NCRC), the group developing Skyland Shopping Center, said the ruling brought back to the table yesterday many of the property owners who had left negotiations to buy back their land.

“The decision probably has sent a message to them,” said Therman Baker, chief operating officer and general counsel at NCRC. “If challenged, it’s likely for a court to determine we have the authority to exercise eminent domain. Our position is much stronger.”

The court’s ruling yesterday also will affect a $1 billion redevelopment project on Baltimore’s West Side in which plans to condemn a Valu-Plus discount retail store have been met with resentment.

“We aren’t moving. They’ll have to physically eject us. We want to be part of the future of Baltimore and part of the future of the West Side,” said Jerald Goldfine, chief operating officer of Valu-Plus, a retail store that opened in the mid-1990s in the former Woolworth’s Department Store on West Lexington Street.

At issue was the scope of the Fifth Amendment, which allows governments to take private property through eminent domain if the land is for “public use.”

But some properties aren’t being claimed for public projects, said John C. Murphy, a Baltimore attorney representing nine clients who are being told they must move to accommodate redevelopment.

Eminent domain “ought to be limited to projects for roads and schools — projects for genuine public use,” Mr. Murphy said.

Baltimore officials also are relying in part on eminent domain to build 1,100 houses as part of the $300 million Uplands Renewal Area project on 100 acres in Southwest Baltimore.

The city bought some of the land for the project in 2003 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Some land was occupied by the former Gundry Glass estate, and 34 acres will be sold to the city by the New Psalmist Baptist Church. But the city also plans to seize a number of adjacent buildings, and businesses that occupy those properties have been labeled a neighborhood blight.

“We are such a small property; we don’t impact what the city wants to do at all. Why they want to come after us, I just don’t understand,” said Arthur Lambert, an insurance agent whose building on Edmondson Avenue would be condemned to make room for the Uplands project.

Mr. Lambert has filed suit in an effort to remain in the building that has housed his business since 1979.

“We want to stay,” he said.

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