What price urban renewal?

Eminent domain: A tool for rebuilding

May 25, 2000|By C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger

I RECENTLY signed a petition urging that a new Baltimore County neighborhood renewal law, Senate Bill 509, be put to referendum in the November general election.

I also pledged to explain our neighborhood renewal efforts and my support for this law in seven debates, one in each council district, starting after Labor Day.

I am doing this because elected leaders should be willing to stand up for their convictions, because it is always healthy to debate controversial issues and because we need more discussion on how best to improveour older communities. Weneed a debate based on facts, not fear.

The fact is that some areas of our county continue to struggle, despite one of the best economies in the nation's history. Our administration has made a difference by fixing schools, repairing roads and alleys, acquiring parkland and providing amenities.

But true renewal must involve private investment as well as public. Such private investment continues to pass by the three areas affected by the new renewal law: the Liberty Road corridor, the Yorkway areaof Dundalk and Essex-Middle River.

A few matters regarding the new renewal law need immediate clarification:

Turning neighborhoods around is difficult. It requires innovation. The law that is being petitioned to referendum is merely one method that we think is worth exploring - one piece in a complicated revitalization effort.

The county's authority under this law is limited. The measure affects 39 properties in the three areas mentioned above. These include 32 commercial parcels, four apartment complexes, a piece of vacant land and two owner-occupied houses. It affects some 900 households (all but two in rental apartment units) and 66 businesses.

The county has no plans to expand this authority. Also, the authority expires after seven years.

The new renewal law is not unusual. Other jurisdictions, such as Baltimore City and Prince George's County, have even broader authority to acquire land for redevelopment. The Inner Harbor would not have been built without authority to use the power of eminent domain for redevelopment.

Confusion exists regarding "revitalization areas" identified in the 2010 county master plan and the neighborhood renewal projects along Liberty Road and in Dundalk and Essex-Middle River. The revitalization areas are broad areas in need of economic and community reinvestment. The neighborhood renewal projects are smaller, specific initiatives within the revitalization areas.

Negotiations between local government and private property owners almost always end amicably. Eminent domain - in which the courts decide how much government should pay a property owner - is always used as a last resort. In Baltimore County, only 5 percent of the county's attempts to purchase property end in condemnation.

I have spoken with many people about revitalizing older neighborhoods. Everyone I have spoken with - including some vocal opponents of the renewal law - supports our overall plan to breathe new life into these communities. Working-class families - the backbone of our neighborhoods - will move elsewhere if they feel they cannot live a decent life here. That creates sprawl, and it exposes older areas to blight. We all agree that we must find ways to keep that from happening.

The disagreement hinges on the issue of fairness. Is it fair for government to disrupt the lives of some in order to raise the quality of life for many? It's a difficult question. As county executive, it is my job to look at the big picture - to find solutions to the problems our neighborhoods face. But there is no question that this solution creates disruption for some individuals.

Let me make this clear: Those individuals matter. I feel strongly that people who have lived and worked in these neighborhoods for years should be able to share in this new era of prosperity. The people affected by this law must be treated fairly. They must be justly compensated for their property and for their trouble. We must do everything we can to minimize disruption to them and ensure that they, too, come out ahead. As long as we do that, I believe this renewal law isan appropriate revitalization tool.

These are complex issues. Let us honorably debate them in the coming months as we work together to make our communities better, stronger places.

C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger is Baltimore County executive.

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