Not a routine matter

January 11, 2007

Baltimore has broad legal authority to take immediate possession of property to clear or redevelop blighted areas, provided it can show that the condemnation is in the public interest. In a city this old, and with so many neglected neighborhoods, that shouldn't be a hard sell. But the city has relied too routinely on this power in recent years - and that isn't always in the public's interest.

The city's use of "quick take" condemnation to gain possession of a North Charles Street bar and package goods store is under scrutiny by the state's highest court and is illustrative of our concerns. The building is located just off North Avenue, an area that surely would qualify as in desperate need of revitalization.

But its owner, George Valsamaki, contested the city's petition to seize the property last year under the "quick take" law because the Baltimore Development Corp. was vague about its redevelopment plans and failed to show why the city needed the property immediately. A judge agreed, and BDC appealed the denial of its condemnation petition.

The "quick take" law, passed in 1969, has been critical to acquiring and clearing blighted areas for redevelopment - though its name is somewhat of a misnomer. For example, Mr. Valsamaki knew for at least two years of the city's intention to buy or take his building as part of a redevelopment project. Still, the law shouldn't be used as a shortcut or to get around the city's general condemnation powers, which are substantial.

Quick takes should be reserved for those instances when the public's safety may be at risk or the immediate need is justified, such as when the city amasses nearly all of the properties it needs to move forward on a project, and a few holdouts are impeding the process.

Last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the government's right to acquire property for economic development struck a nerve with citizens who rightly fear they could lose their homes or businesses simply because the government desires a more profitable use of an area. Especially in light of that concern, the city should be conservative in its use of the broad powers of "quick take."

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