When Is Public Acquisition of Private Property in a Community’s Best Interest?

by Ward Eisinger

At the beginning of July, developer Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, Inc. sent a letter to communities in and around Charles Village asking them to support the "public acquisition" of five properties needed to give them everything they need to move forward with a massive development project along the 3200 block of St. Paul Street.

In the letter to "Charles Village Community Leader" it is made clear that the desire is to have the City take two fraternity houses and three rowhomes from their current, rightful owners so that SBE&R can realize its plan to develop property it had no legal claim to.

Having co-opted community groups and individuals to participate in planning/mitigating a massive reuse of other people’s property, SBE&R is now asking that community leaders support the seizure of that property by the City, for no other reason than SBE&R wants it.

This is supposed to pass for a legitimate "public purpose," whereby the Constitution gives the government the power to take the property for "just compensation."

To ease any concern a "community leader" might have about supporting the seizure of somebody else's property (as well as posible livelihood or investment), the letter points out that the five properties are not owner-occupied, and that furthermore two of them are fraternity houses and the other three have been subdivided into apartments.

Does this mean that the owners of these properties are somehow bad? or worse than SBE&R? or Hopkins?

Does this mean that we should support the seizure and redevelopment of all such properties in our area to suit SBE&R's and other developers' whims?

Finally, the letter from SBE&R mentions that Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) will be used to fund parts of the project. (Apparently SBE&R and the BDC are talking about using Tax Incremental Financing for other projects, too, including Clipper Mill.)

The introduction of the new term (TIF) has prompted people to ask me what it means. I have communicated with a politician in California who describes TIF in this way: Property taxes paid to the City are frozen at today's pre-development level so the City will not see any increase in tax revenue from the project to fund most of the services a community leader/activist might care about.

The increase in property tax collected will be given to the BDC and/or the Developer to repay bond and other debt, and to fund further development/redevelopment, but not City services.

So while schools, libraries, etc. will be facing cutbacks or freezes, and some might be closed in our communities, the BDC and development projects will be ensuring future funding that utilizes the promised tax increase generated by these proposed projects.

This type of tax diversion is being found wanting by other jurisdictions that have tried it. Baltimore is apparently dead set on getting into it in a big way, now, despite findings by others that it does not deliver the promised benefits.

When I sent out an email seeking aid I was given, unsolicited, contact information for someone who might help me with a contribution to my campaign for City Council.

In other words, nationally, there is organized opposition of eminent domain abuse and the questionable schemes of funding "economic development" as well as support for politicians willing to recognize the flaws of this type of policy and work for a change.

It appears that very soon the City Council will again be asked to consider legislation that will further enrich SBE&R (and probably other developers) at the expense of small (mom and pop) investment property owners and business people, and fraternal organizations.

I hope that "Community Leaders" will see the implications of blind support for these measures for all of the area communities. After all, communities other than Charles Village might be looked at by developers for their "development potential' and not as places to live and work, as they are by the current property owners, residents and business people.

It is not a crime to own an investment property, a fraternity house, a home, or a small business. It is a crime to take something that does not belong to you.

Please tell the City Council to oppose any further expansion of the City's power of eminent domain condemnation (aka. "public acquisition").

Ward Eisinger is president of the Remington Neighborhood Alliance.

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This story was published on August 15, 2003.