City bid to seize bar is blocked

Judge rejects Baltimore's plan to condemn The Magnet and redevelop Charles North area


By rejecting Baltimore's plan to seize a bar for its Charles North redevelopment effort, a Circuit Court judge has complicated that urban renewal plan and called into question the city's economic development tactics.

Judge John Philip Miller, in an opinion released yesterday, ruled that city economic development officials failed to show "sufficient grounds" to warrant taking the bar through eminent domain.

Land-use officials say this could be the first time the court has blocked the city from a "quick take" seizure.

"The Plaintiff impassively asserts that the Charles North Project will likely come to a temporary halt unless Plaintiff is awarded the Property in Interest immediately," Miller wrote. "The Court, based on all evidence, is not satisfied the Plaintiff has met its burden."

The city is attempting to condemn The Magnet at 1924 N. Charles St., and about 20 other properties in the area, to assemble sizable tracts to offer developers. The goal is to jump-start the depressed area, which is sandwiched between Mount Vernon and Charles Village and sits along the busy Charles Street corridor.

The city plans to challenge the ruling.

"I would simply say we respectfully disagree with Judge Miller, and we will be seeking reconsideration of the matter," Elva Tillman, a city special solicitor, said yesterday.

M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's development arm, declined to discuss the specifics of the ruling but said yesterday that Baltimore's use of the "quick take" process for Charles North is no different than the hundreds of other instances the city has used eminent domain.

"This is not unique in any way. This is the way the city's done things for the last 40 years," Brodie said. "It's called urban renewal."

However, in his ruling, Miller questioned the city's procedure of moving to seize the bar before having a specific plan for the site. Typically, the BDC leaves it up to developers vying for the seized property to decide whether they want to build homes, shops, offices or something else.

Citing last year's Supreme Court ruling that affirmed government's right to seize private property for economic development, Miller wrote that Kelo v. New London showed that to take property for economic development, a city must show "a carefully considered development plan."

Baltimore, the judge ruled, did not.

Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Scott Bullock, who argued Kelo before the Supreme Court on behalf of the property owners and was aware of Baltimore's Charles North case, said it shows how in the aftermath of Kelo, courts are increasingly scrutinizing property seizure cases.

"It demonstrates that the courts are now embarking to set their own course when it comes to eminent domain abuse," Bullock said. "It seemed like this case was so egregious and so sloppy."

If the Circuit Court decision stands, Baltimore's long-standing way of achieving urban redevelopment could be turned on its head.

"It certainly would create a problem," Tillman said.

Brodie added: "That's something we'll have to see about."

Attorney John C. Murphy, who represents the owner of The Magnet and a number of other small property owners who are challenging the city's use of eminent domain in Charles North and in other neighborhoods, said Miller's ruling could have repercussions for the city. He said it "evens out the playing field quite a bit."

"It's certainly a substantive restriction on the power of eminent domain," Murphy said. "In my humble opinion, this is a big deal."

Though the Kelo decision prompted states across the country to rush to pass legislation that would crack down on government's condemnation powers, similar efforts fell flat this year in Annapolis.

While some, including Murphy, fought hard for laws that would restrict property seizure for economic development, eminent domain advocates, led by Baltimore officials, fought just as fiercely to preserve the status quo.

Without eminent domain, they argued, Baltimore would never have been able to turn the Inner Harbor from decrepit docks into a tourist attraction.

The goals of bar owner George Valsamaki in challenging the city's seizure are unclear. Murphy said the city offered Valsamaki $140,000 for the property.

Valsamaki did not return phone calls yesterday.

The ruling greatly disappoints Dale Dusman, president of the Charles North Community Association, who's been waiting for years to see improvement in his stretch of Charles Street.

He's nervous that the decision might delay - if not ruin - the redevelopment plans.

"If this is going to be the case, we're going to have a problem with every property they want to take," he said. "We have really great potential here, but certain buildings have to go."

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