Can Exercising Eminent Domain Be Justifiable?

by J. Russell Tyldesley

The Sun ran a front page story Sunday, Jan. 19 about an 84-year-old lady, Lula Hoffman, who lives in an old house at 1517 S. Caton St. in the Canton area of Baltimore. Until four years ago, she ran a bar on the ffi-st floor of the house. Her father had operated the bar since the Great Depression.

It seems that the rest of the old neighborhood has made way for yet another expansion of the explosion of gentrification on both sides of the inner harbor. Luxury apartments and condos, trendy restaurants, hotels, and marinas are supplanting the old, poor neighborhoods, and marginal industrial properties of an older time.

Edwin Hale, CEO of First Mariner Bank and a prominent real estate developer, has been unable to acquire Ms. Hoffman's house, and it stands in splendid isolation right in the middle of cleared land, designed to be a brand new office complex called Canton Crossing.

Ms. Hoffman would just as soon not sell. It’s the only home she has known for 84 years. The property is certainly not a nuisance, and seems to be very well cared for. It may or may not be a candidate for an historic designation, but it certainly has known a lot of history. It would fit right in with some of the exhibits at the Museum of Industry, on the other side of the harbor.

Ms. Hoffinan does not appear to be an unreasonable person, from the report in the Sun. Although her first choice is not to move, she will, for a fair price. Apparently, Mr. Hale does not agree with her definition of “fair.” Mr. Hale feels that he has made a very generous offer at $225,000, and rather than go to a price of $500,000 which Ms. Hoffman had previously requested, he will ask the City for help in having the property condemned.

It remains to be seen if the City will find a compelling public interest in forcing the sale of Ms. Hoffman’s home; and, if they do, it bears watching how they will "appraise" the value. Since the property is only assessed at $47,000, it is hard to see how it would justify even a $225,000 value, except that the vision that Mr. Hale now has for the area changes the equation.

But the bigger question is: what is the value of the loss of a home with 84 years of memories contained therein, and a place of sanctuary for a contented soul? Not to mention that it also embodies the accomplishments of a lifetime of labor, a labor of love by all accounts. What is the market value of Ms Hoffman’s dream compared to Mr. Hale’s? How do we value a spiritual attachment to place?

It is considerations such as this that award pain and suffering in tort cases. The court knows that merely compensating for damages is not enough in most cases.

There is another less subjective reason to argue for a different method of valuation. What will be the value of the new property to be built on this land? Should Ms. Hoffman not be entitled to a "partner" interest in whatever is built on her property? As she put it, “I have been here 84 years, Mr. Hale has been here one year. Who has the greater claim?”

When I was much younger, I used to hear the expression ‘possession is nine-tenths of the law.’ It may not have been true even then, but I don’t even hear the expression anymore. It could be just the latest example that the law is biased towards wealth and power, and the old values don’t hold anymore.

J. Russell Tyldesley, an insurance executive, writes from Catonsville.

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This story was published on February 10, 2003.