Businesses win a reprieve

Court backs challenge to land takings for Uplands development

November 24, 2006|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,sun reporter

A group of business owners has won at least a temporary victory in its battle to keep members' establishments from being seized by the city as part of plans to create a major residential development on the site of the abandoned Uplands Apartments in Southwest Baltimore.

This month, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals reinstated a challenge by the business owners to a 2004 urban renewal law that allows the properties to be condemned as part of a project to create 1,100 new units of housing.

The intermediate appellate court said that a Baltimore Circuit Court judge's dismissal of the lawsuit last year was improper because the judge failed to explain her ruling and gave no indication that she had considered five of six arguments raised by the businesses. The case was sent back to the Circuit Court for further hearings and possible trial.

The appellate court ruling was hailed by the businesses and their attorney, John C. Murphy, who tried to get the businesses excluded from the ordinance when it was being considered by the City Council and sued to get it overturned a week after it was enacted.

"This I think is a great example of eminent domain abuse," said Murphy. "This is another Kelo."

That is a reference to the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that narrowly upheld the constitutionality of the practice of taking land for private development but ignited a debate over property rights.

Murphy was the lawyer for nine businesses that were being condemned as part of the West Side redevelopment whose case led to the decision this month by the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court. The ruling held that Baltimore Development Corp. must comply with state sunshine laws and open its meetings to the public.

Sandra R. Gutman, chief of the department's land use division and one of the city lawyers handling the case, said she is "still very confident" that the city will prevail in the case.

"I think the ordinance was valid," she said. "I don't think we were defeated. I think the [lower] court neglected to make a declaration" of its reasons for dismissal.

At issue is about 3 acres bordered by Old Frederick Road and Edmondson and Swann avenues - known as "The Triangle" because of its shape - that contains about a dozen small retail and service businesses.

The city wants the land as part of what officials say would be the city's largest new housing development in decades - 1,100 mixed-income units on 130 acres that includes the site of the vacant, low-income Uplands Apartments complex that would be razed and the grounds of the adjacent New Psalmist Baptist Church, which is being relocated.

Two weeks ago, three groups vying to take the lead in developing the project, which could be worth as much as $300 million, made presentations before community leaders.

Late last month, the city demolished the first of dozens of low-rise buildings that make up the Uplands Apartments complex, which the city acquired from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development after the complex's private owner defaulted on a federally backed mortgage.

The city agreed to hold off on tearing down more until the final resolution of another lawsuit, this one filed in federal court, by former tenants who are seeking assurances that some of the new housing units would be inexpensive enough to give them a chance to return.

City officials say they need Triangle properties to create an attractive entrance into the new development, which would include new parks and sidewalks and have more than 800 units, most of them priced from a little more than $200,000 to about $350,000.

The 80-page master plan for the site calls for three story apartment buildings along Edmondson Avenue, with features that would "define the street edge and create a new building precedent for the rest of Edmondson Avenue."

Put together by the Boston firm Goody, Clancy & Associates, the plan also calls for the creation of a park on part of the Triangle site that would "serve as the `front door' to the Uplands neighborhood."

To be known as Swann Park, the plan calls for the space to include benches and landscaping, and "grassy spaces with shade trees ... for picnicking and informal recreation like throwing a Frisbee or playing catch."

Murphy and some of the six business owners he represents counter that though their properties might be desirable, they are hardly necessary for the redevelopment of the apartment complex.

"It doesn't have anything to do with the Uplands development," says Arthur W. Lambert, 74, whose insurance business has been a fixture on Edmondson Avenue for about three decades. "They can move forward with that without this little tiny area."

Among the arguments made by Murphy and the business owners that the Court of Special Appeals said were not properly considered is the notion that the Triangle properties are neither blighted nor needed to curb the spread of blight, which they contend is a condition under city law for inclusion in a renewal plan.

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