City Council Flirts with Eminent Domain

by Ward Eisinger

For those of you who are not aware, in 2002 the City introduced Council Bill 701 to give itself the power to acquire "property of every kind" within the boundaries of Baltimore City, via eminent domain condemnation, for the undefined purpose of "industrial growth" (a term that replaced "economic development" in the law).

Residential property was included in the First Reader draft of the bill despite the fact that State law, drafted at the request of the BDC and the City in 2001, protected property that was BOTH zoned residential AND occupied exclusively as a residence.

In the first draft the sole authority to identify and approve the acquisition of property was given to the Board of Estimates, a 5 member body wherein the Mayor controls 3 of the 5 votes.

The authority to turn the property over to developers was, and still is, given solely to the Board of Estimates.

On April 4, 2002 the Planning Commission held a poorly publicized and poorly attended hearing on bill 701.

The Planning Department pointed out that the authority to acquire property by Condemnation needed to be changed to require approval by both the Mayor and City Council. Nobody mentioned the fact that the bill did not comply with State law until I stood up and pointed out that the claim that only industrial property would be targeted was not specifically stated anywhere in the bill.

The Planning Commission than approved the bill with the recommendation that it be amended to comply with State law and that the term "industrial growth" should be defined. On September 5, 2002 the Urban Affairs Committee held an extremely poorly publicized and poorly attended hearing on bill 701 (only about 10-12 people were in the room).

At this hearing the BDC did not bring its map of the 2,500 acres/properties it intended to target for eminent domain condemnation (it had had such a map at the April Planning Commission hearing).

It was made clear that the City would have the power to take property from its rightful owners merely to promote development, and that the power would applicable throughout the City (inside Urban Renewal Areas and Outside Urban Renewal Areas).

It was further spelled out that this could have a huge impact on property that was not zoned residential but was occupied as a residence, as well as all property that was not both zoned and occupied as a residence since it would be vulnerable to siezure at any time if someone wanted to develop the land.

At this point any property that was not a home would have been vulnerable to siezure at the request of a developer, and the Committee had no draft amendments to consider in spite of the recommendations of the Planning Commission.

At the last City Council meeting in December 2002, bill 701 appeared on a list of bills that would die if it was not acted on at the next Council meeting.

I believe that it was on December 26, 2002 that the bill was released from Committee with a favorable report and at the next Council meeting, January 13, 2003, the bill was slipped onto the agenda at the last minute and passed unchallenged on Second Reader by all Council members present.

At the next Council meeting on January 27, 2003 bill 701 was scheduled for Third Reader and a flurry of last minute opposition resulted in the bill failing on third reader.

Ten Council Members failed the bill and 5 voted for it.

At the subsequent Council meeting, February 10, 2003, Councilman Curran moved to revive the bill, Councilwoman Spector seconded, and it was sent back to the Urban Affairs Committee for further consideration. All Council members present supported this action.

After a series of maneuvers by BDC and some Council Members to marginalize opposition, there was an attempt to pass bill 701 on April 15, 2003 without any new amendments.

Another last-minute flurry of opposition resulted in amendments being drafted and attached to the bill, on the afternoon of April 15th, essentially limiting the expanded power of eminent domain condemnation to industrial property, protecting properties zoned residential, office-residential, and commercial, as well as property occupied as a residence. Only two Council Members opposed 701 at this time, D'Adamo and Garey, presumably because they were concerned over the seizure of industrial properties in their district.

Ward Eisinger is president of the Remington Neighborhood Alliance.

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This story was published on August 15, 2003.