Victory surprises activist

URBAN CHRONICLE

Condemnation: A bill to allow the city to seize certain properties had an unexpected outcome in the City Council.

February 06, 2003|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

NOT ONLY CAN you fight City Hall, you can even win -- at least temporarily. But you might have to fight again.

Just ask Ward Eisinger, president of the Remington Neighborhood Alliance.

For months, the 36-year-old lab technician led a lonely and seemingly futile fight against a bill that would give the city the right of eminent domain to seize properties for private economic development projects.

Eisinger's principal concern was that the bill would allow the city to condemn homes in commercially zoned areas -- structures abundant not only in his North Baltimore neighborhood, but in many communities across the city. He also worried that small businesses could be seized to clear the way for potentially more lucrative, larger ones.

On Jan. 27, a majority of members of the City Council finally came to share his concerns -- thanks largely to a leaflet distributed by Eisinger's group just before the meeting. It was titled: "IS THE CITY PLANNING TO SEIZE YOUR PROPERTY?"

Two weeks after approving the legislation on a preliminary vote, the council reversed itself, voting to kill the bill when it came up for a final vote -- to the astonishment of just about everyone involved.

"I was sure that the stinker was going to pass," Eisinger said in an e-mail the day after the vote. "What a shock to hear that the council killed it."

But the legislation giving the city the power to condemn industrial property outside designated renewal areas for economic development -- regarded as allowable under U.S. Supreme Court rulings but prohibited under the city charter -- is considered likely to come back Monday. Under council rules, defeated bills may be brought back at the next meeting at the request of a majority of members or one of the members voting against the bill.

Andrew W. Frank, executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp., which is seeking the legislation, said the economic development agency is working on new language that would make it clear that the bill would not authorize the city to condemn a residential building in an industrial zone for economic development.

"That was not the intent of the bill," Frank said this week. "As drafted, it's not clear that is not the intent."

The intent, Frank said, was to give the city the power to condemn abandoned industrial sites that owners are unwilling to sell or spruce up, assembling parcels for new businesses or the expansion of existing ones.

"We've been beating the drum for seven years -- we need more land," Frank said. With new authority, he said, "we believe the city would capture 40 acres of industrial growth a year" -- creating jobs and improving nearby neighborhoods. Without it, he said, "every day ... there's another opportunity lost."

Frank called the bill's defeat "unexpected," given its favorable report by a committee and approval two weeks before.

The vote, as recounted by members, was an example of the council in action.

First District Councilwoman Lois A. Garey said she decided to vote "no" after being handed a copy of the Remington group's flier shortly before the meeting and realizing she really didn't understand the bill.

"We probably should understand what we're voting on before we vote," she acknowledged. "But we can't be at all the hearings."

Her district colleague, John L. Cain, also voted against the bill. "I'm not opposed to increasing industrial land," he said this week. "We do have to get back to the nuts and bolts of making things. But there were some unanswered questions."

Soon eight other council members joined the chorus of nays. Cain turned to Garey and said, "The first duck walks across the road and everyone follows."

"All of a sudden, you heard all these no's," said 4th District Councilwoman Catherine E. Pugh, one of only five council members to vote for the bill. (Four members were absent.) "I didn't understand what all the controversy was."

Baltimore is not the only place grappling with the issue. In a case that drew nationwide attention, the Illinois Supreme Court struck down last year a development authority's condemnation of a scrap yard to provide more parking for a motor speedway. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case -- despite the urging of the International Municipal Lawyers Association that the court use the case to "resolve the question of whether the Public Use Clause of the Fifth Amendment allows government to condemn private property for economic development when the property is transferred to another private party."

That's the kind of discussion Eisinger says the council bill never had but sorely needs.

Talk of amending the bill to clarify that it will not apply to residential properties makes the situation "better than it was" but far from ideal, he says.

Legislators voice plea for program to governor

A delegation of Southeast Baltimore legislators has asked Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to restore full state funding to the Live Near Your Work program, whose cuts were the subject of a column in this space two weeks ago.

"For young and/or low-income homebuyers, the program has been a key in their ability to purchase a first home," said a letter to Ehrlich signed by state Sen. George W. Della and 46th District Dels. Peter A. Hammen, Carolyn Krysiak and Brian K. McHale. "These homebuyers are now revitalizing marginal neighborhoods and strengthening older communities."

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