Two construction cranes rise above heaps of rubble in Dundalk's Yorkway neighborhood, the first signs that something better could be coming to what has long been a pocket of violence and decay.
It's a dreary place, one where a drug debt was squared by executing a woman as she pleads for her life in an alley. Now the Baltimore County government wants to clear the entire area and rebuild it from scratch -- so badly, in fact, that elected officials are talking about defying what has become a political taboo. They might seize private property -- and sell it to developers -- in the cause of economic development.
Many localities across the nation have used condemnation to make way for private development, and the practice has been upheld by the Supreme Court. But it would be a significant change of course in Baltimore County, where a similar proposal known as Senate Bill 509 was voted down -- and where as recently as a year ago the county executive declared the idea out of the question.
"Time changes a lot of things," said former state Sen. Francis X. Kelly. "For them to do this, knowing what happened politically in the past, they must feel pretty strongly that it's the right thing for them to do. It's a risk."
The renewed discussion of using eminent domain powers was prompted by county officials' frustration in negotiations with Yorkway property owners.
Council members raised the possibility of condemnation last week after the county government agreed to purchase a Yorkway parcel for twice its appraised value. And as the government negotiates with three remaining landlords in Yorkway, a spokesman for County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said he is no longer ruling out the tactic.
In the county's condemnation process, a jury decides the value of a parcel of land, and officials trust that the jury's price would be lower than the amount demanded by the owner.
Smith's spokesman, Donald I. Mohler, said officials know that condemnation is a sensitive issue but that all options will be considered to ensure that the $17.2 million Yorkway project moves ahead. "We have a deep and abiding respect for property rights," Mohler said. But there must be limits on the spending of taxpayer dollars, he said. "We have reached that limit at Yorkway."
The county has bought 46 buildings in Yorkway and hopes to buy about 10 more. Once all the properties are acquired, the county plans to sell the 8-acre tract to a developer for new housing. No specific plans for the property have been drawn up.
Built in 1944, the complex once served as inexpensive postwar housing. By the late 1980s, the neighborhood began to decline, becoming a drug haven. County officials say police responded to hundreds of calls a year there.
In 1999, then-County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger announced plans to bulldoze the neighborhood, a day after a woman was shot to death in an alley as frightened neighbors looked on. Prosecutors later said a Dundalk man agreed to forgive a $10,000 debt if a 16-year-old youth shot the woman, who allegedly cheated the man in a drug deal.
The county has condemned land for public uses such as roads, acts that are generally considered routine government business.
But Ruppersberger's proposal in early 2000 called for the county to condemn large swaths of older neighborhoods in the eastern and western parts of the county, including Yorkway, to make way for new development. He lobbied the General Assembly to pass a bill that would allow the county to condemn a long list of properties.
Almost immediately after Senate Bill 509 passed, residents began to mobilize. They collected 44,000 signatures -- enough to bring the issue to a referendum on the November ballot.
"It was a small group of citizens ... people fighting for their homes and their families, against, if you will, county government," said James F. Ports Jr., then a Republican state delegate who helped lead the referendum drive. "It was politically the biggest thing I did, politically probably one of the biggest things for the county."
Ruppersberger, a Democrat, agreed to a series of debates with Ports -- and was jeered at them.
Ruppersberger, now a member of the House of Representatives, said one of his biggest errors was not meeting with landowners before including their properties in Senate Bill 509. "The intentions of 509 were to help a neighborhood in distress," he said in a phone interview last week. "It was not about taking people's homes throughout the county. But that was my mistake with losing control of the issue."
Voters defeated the proposal by a margin of more than 2-to-1.
Nationwide, municipalities in recent years have threatened or filed condemnations against thousands of properties slated to be transferred to private parties, according to the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm.