Friday, June 24, 2005

Riverfront up for grabs? Supreme Court ruling may allow Memphis to take land for project

The Commercial Appeal
By Tom Charlier

A U.S. Supreme Court decision backing the use of eminent domain for a riverfront project in Connecticut opens up new options for Memphis as it pursues a similar initiative along the Mississippi River, officials said Thursday.

By a 5-4 vote, the court held Thursday that New London, Conn., could seize homes and businesses for a private development project because of the potential boost in tax revenues and jobs that could result.

The decision was viewed as expanding the limits on eminent domain. Municipal leaders said it would help financially stricken cities generate revenue, while critics called it an affront to the rights of property owners, who could be uprooted to accommodate wealthy developers.

The New London case had been followed closely by the Riverfront Development Corp., which plans some $300 million worth of projects to revamp a 5-mile stretch of the Memphis waterfront over the next 50 years.

The decision means RDC could resort to eminent domain to take a four-block section of the Downtown promenade, where a mixed-use development is planned.

"It definitely gives the city more tools in its tool box for dealing with the legal issues surrounding that piece of property," said RDC president Benny Lendermon.

The promenade is land west of Front set aside by Memphis founders for public use. Although the city has a permanent easement, the land is owned by heirs to John Overton and other founders.

The nonprofit RDC, established to manage riverfront projects, wants to raze structures such as parking garages and a library to make way for public areas and residential and commercial development, possibly including high-rises.

But the promenade plan, which was approved by the City Council in 2004, has elicited opposition from a group that includes some of the heirs. They oppose commercial use of the land.

Lendermon said the city attorney's office is reviewing options concerning the promenade. No decision has been made as to whether eminent domain will be used, he said.

But the group opposing the RDC's proposal said the agency's failure to negotiate with the heirs so far suggests it already has decided to pursue eminent domain.

"It's been our assumption that they've been waiting for this case to give them a green light to take this land away from the citizens of Memphis and lease it to private developers," said John Gary, vice president of Friends For Our Riverfront.

Gary expressed disappointment at the decision, which he said allows cities to seize a "public gem" like the promenade and "dispose of it any way they choose."

But Lendermon said the decision provides a boost for Memphis and other cities.

"It's critically important for cities, for their ability to control economic development opportunities, especially in these days when financial crises are the norm," he said.

Eminent domain's past

The Supreme Court's opinion goes further than before in allowing the government to invoke its "eminent domain" and to seize private property from unwilling sellers.

The Constitution says government may take private property "for public use" if it pays the owners "just compensation." Originally, public use meant the land was used for roads, canals or military bases. In the 19th Century, railroads were permitted to take private lands because they served the public.

In the mid-20th Century, the court said cities could condemn homes and stores in "blighted" areas for redevelopment. That 1954 decision helped trigger various urban renewal projects across the nation.

In Thursday's decision, the court went a step further and said officials need not claim they are condemning blighted properties or clearing slums.

-- Los Angeles Times

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