Blight Ordinance Fails, with a Vote Along Familiar Lines
by NPT Staff
Posted on January 29, 2008
Another attempt to define blight in a way that would restrict the use of eminent domain for the Downtown Plan was defeated by El Paso City Council Tuesday. The vote was 4-3 against an ordinance proposed by Northeast Rep. Melina Castro.
It wasn't the first time the issue has come up, and may not be the last time.
Those voting against the measure cited its failure in the Texas Legislature last summer, and the fact that it was brought by the Land Grab Opponents, a group of Downtown property owners.
Voting in favor were Reps. Melina Castro, Eddie Holguin Jr. and Rachel Quintana; voting against were Reps. Susie Byrd, Steven Ortega, Ann Morgan Lilly, and Beto O’Rourke.
Essentially, the proposed ordinance is meant to ensure that only property considered blighted by meeting at least three of seven criteria can be taken through eminent domain, as opposed to the current rules, which could allow a building within an overall area that is considered blighted to be taken. The ordinance also would incorporate a definition of "public use," the standard generally used to determine if eminent domain can be applied.
One of the arguments over the potential use of eminent domain in the Downtown Plan is using the government's power to take property from one owner and giving it to developers.
Generally, eminent domain is when the government takes private property for a public use, typically used for such projects as roads or hospitals but since the 1950s expanded for more controversial uses such as redevelopment of neighborhoods. In Texas, eminent domain cannot be used for economic development, but does call eliminating blight a valid public use, and property can be transferred from a private owner to another private owner, as long as eliminating blight is the reason, and economic development is a secondary outcome.
The proposal introduced by Castro tracked state laws that failed over the summer, one at the last minute in the legislature and the other which was approved by lawmakers but vetoed by the governor after an amendment many considered a "poison pill" was tacked on.
Mayor John Cook told the El Paso Times that he supported HB 2006, the bill that was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry for the most part, but wrote a letter urging its rejection after an amendment was added that would compensate property owners next to a roadway for the loss of access to that roadway.
The issue came up at City Council in fall 2006 and in spring 2007, when the El Paso Times editorialized in favor of an ordinance more carefully defining blight.
The group, through its lawyer, Stuart Blaugrund, was active in lobbying the legislature for the two bills -- HB 2006 and 3057 -- last summer. That fact was cited by city Reps. Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega during heated discussions in 2006 and 2007, and again by Byrd last week, although Blaugrund was not mentioned by name.
The seven criteria outlined in the proposed ordinance are:
-- The property contains unsafe, uninhabitable, or abandoned structures
-- The property does not have adequate sanitation
-- The property contains an "imminent harm" to life or property
-- The property has been identified by EPA as a "superfund" site
-- The property is the site of repeated illegal activity
-- The property is an economic liability to its neighbors
-- The property is abandoned and contains a structure not fit for use
Land Grab Opponents issued a statement following the 4-3 vote against the ordinance Tuesday.
“The city council has affirmed our concerns that they need at least the threat of eminent domain to force through their 135-acre downtown revitalization and partial acquisition plan” said Jerry Rosenbaum, president of LGO. Rosenbaum's family owns El Paso-Juarez Limousine and the parking lots at the corners of Paisano and Oregon that are used as flea markets.
“The city council has said that they don’t intend to use eminent domain on non-blighted properties, and they continually stress that they don’t think it will even be needed," he said. "However, their failure to pass an ordinance to actually protect non-blighted properties tells us they don’t believe what they’re saying."
Edie Zuvanich, an LGO board member who works for the Kimmelman's Starr Western Wear, said that “The city must pass an eminent domain ordinance in order to ensure non-blighted properties are protected. We’re not asking them to remove eminent domain from their ‘toolbox’. We’re only asking for an ordinance to assure property owners that eminent domain will not be used to forcibly confiscate property from its rightful owners when the property is well-maintained and up to code.
"A responsible property owner should not lose his property just because big developers have other plans for his land. And the city should not allow its policies to create the impression it is willing to give favorable treatment to developers in the acquisition of land through displacing property owners who have done nothing wrong," she said. "This ordinance was an opportunity for the city to show its intentions toward and commitment to its tax-paying property owners.”
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