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6/24/2005
Supreme Court ruling allows local governments to condemn blighted land to stimulate economic redevelopment

As a national leader in smart growth, Councilman Weiner's opinion sought
Excerpted from Wilmington News Journal

06/24/2005

WASHINGTON -- Supreme Court ruled Thursday, giving local governments broad power to seize private property to generate tax revenue.

The 5-4 decision means that homeowners will have more limited rights. Still, legal experts said they didn't expect a rush to claim homes.

The closely watched case involving New London, Conn., homeowners was one of six decisions issued Thursday as the court neared the end of its term. The justices are scheduled to release their final six rulings, including one on the constitutionality of Ten Commandments displays on public property, Monday.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, said New London could pursue private development under the Fifth Amendment, which allows governments to take private property if the land is for public use, since the project the city has in mind promises to bring more jobs and revenue.

"Promoting economic development is a traditional and long accepted function of government," Stevens wrote, adding that local officials are better positioned than federal judges to decide what's best for a community.

He was joined in his opinion by other members of the court's liberal wing -- David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, as well as Reagan appointee Justice Anthony Kennedy, in noting that states are free to pass additional protections if they see fit.

Gregg Wilson, New Castle County attorney, said the court's decision "appears to open some interesting opportunities to benefit the community, when used fairly and judiciously."

New Castle County Councilman Robert S. Weiner, Land Use Chairman for the National Association of Counties, said he will be discussing the court's decision at next month's meeting.

"It was widely anticipated by those who follow issues of eminent domain that the decision would be favorable to local government, and I'm pleased that the nexus between eminent domain and public purpose was again clarified and strengthened," he said. "There are instances when government can abuse that authority, but when used properly, local government can be an important tool to assist communities in revitalizing economically depressed areas."

One example, Weiner said, is a project he championed over the past five years -- the Claymont Renaissance. "Had we not been successful in encouraging the owners of the Brookview Apartments to sell voluntarily, we would have considered the use of eminent domain or condemnation," he said. "The authority in that case wasn't clear because [this] decision was still pending."

The Supreme Court in its decision has acknowledged that redevelopment is "a valid municipal purpose," said Newark city solicitor Roger Akin.

Connecticut state Rep. Ernest Hewett, who as a city council member approved the development, said, "I am charged with doing what's best for the 26,000 people that live in New London."

New London once was a center for the whaling industry and later became a manufacturing hub. More recently the city has suffered the kind of economic woes afflicting urban areas across the country, with losses of residents and jobs.

City officials envision a commercial development including a riverfront hotel, health club and offices that would attract tourists to the Thames riverfront, complementing an adjoining Pfizer Corp. research center and a proposed Coast Guard museum.

Staff writer Michele Besso and the Associated Press contributed to this story.

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