Friday, September 23, 2005

City backs off one use of eminent domain

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:36 AM |  

It was a surprise to property owners in the area bordering the Jefferson-Smurfit property near Loeb Lake on St. Paul’s north side, but a pleasant one.

Both the Jefferson-Smurfit property developer and representatives of the St. Paul planning department categorically stated that eminent domain, which was cnsidered an option, would not be used in conjunction with a proposed townhouse development. As I noted in my Pioneer Press column on August 31 --
Property owners adjacent to the Jefferson Smurfit property near Loeb Lake in St. Paul, whose family has held title to the land since 1905, are under threat of eminent domain as the city determines (noted in a neighborhood letter from council member Lee Helgen) "how to enhance the neighborhood." So the City Council can "assess redevelopment opportunities" presented by this private property, it passed an ordinance prohibiting homeowners on the land from making improvements to their properties.
In this case the developer, Dick Kedrowski, returned to his roots -- he grew up in the Rice Street area -- and did not want to be the kind of neighbor that used the city to take neighborhood property -- despite his obvious interest in the property and his open invitation to discuss a purchase with any “willing seller.” The eminent domain threat, however, would not be part of the negotiation.

From the city planning department, Emily Ulmer stated that the development plan “no longer includes taking the area between the park and the Jefferson-Smurfit property.” It was also stated that improving Jessamine Court, which runs through the adjacent property, as access to the development would not require taking of property.

The meeting was the first time that property owners in the area heard that the threat of eminent domain, which was clearly stated back in March, was lifted. Nonetheless, it was welcome news, if accepted somewhat skeptically. There are still possible eminent domain issues for established local businesses in the area, unrelated to the Jefferson-Smurfit development.

The larger point is, in this case, property owners were fortunate to be dealing with a developer that understood the neighborhood disruption that can be caused by eminent domain. It did not put the issue to rest. In light of the Kelo decision, legislative action limiting the use of eminent domain to transfer property from one private owner to another for “redevelopment” ought to remain a priority.