Wednesday, September 28, 2005

COLUMN -- Nothing eminent about taking the homes of elderly widows

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:08 AM |  

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

It was a surprise to 79-year-old Olive Taylor, but a pleasant one. Pleasant for a while. Now she's not so sure. Heck of a way to spend one's golden years, wondering if the city is going to take your home.

Taylor is one feisty lady. First a young bride, later a young widow, in another time she'd have been a frontier matriarch running a ranching empire. As it is, she lives in a modest house on property that has been in her late husband's family since 1905. Over time, she's purchased and rents out several houses surrounding her home, across from Loeb Lake and Marydale Park in St. Paul.

Nice piece of property. Too nice for a 79-year-old woman when it just happens to sit between a park, a 9-acre city lake and a proposed townhouse development. Sure would make a nice greenway to the park for the townhouse folks.

Taylor's property is part of the Loeb Lake Small Area Plan & 40-Acre Study. Sales of large commercial parcels sitting in residential areas around the park prompted the study after the District 6 Planning Council recommended that the properties be "re-evaluated for residential development." The non-operating Jefferson-Smurfit paper products factory, adjacent to Taylor's property, was recommended for "higher density" housing.

The city was, of course, thinking like a city, thinking of ways to "enhance the neighborhood."

"The Loeb Lake area has not seen much attention from the city in recent years," St. Paul City Council Member Lee Helgen wrote in a "Dear Neighbors" letter dated May 12. He noted that "Marydale Park is underutilized … the true potential of the Willow Reserve is not yet realized … the potential for new retail and service opportunities exists at key intersections such as Maryland and Dale."

The proposed study would "guide redevelopment of the area in a way that is consistent and hopefully desirable to those who live in the area." Taylor did not find it desirable that the city was coveting her home.

Thus did Taylor, a proud woman from a blue-collar background, who created a comfortable living for herself on property she planned to leave to her family, suddenly find herself on the front lines of an eminent domain war intensified by the Supreme Court's decision in the Kelo v. City of New London case.

"That case changed my life," she said.

In Kelo, the court held that "redevelopment" was a valid "public use" that justified local use of eminent domain to transfer property from one private party to another. The private party benefiting from the city's taking of Taylor's property would be the developer of the Jefferson-Smurfit property, Dick Kedrowski. Kedrowski got to know Taylor very well over the next several months — as did members of the various St. Paul planning agencies, the City Council, and even folks at the headquarters of Jefferson-Smurfit. Taylor waged her battle to keep her home with very little certainty she had any chance against the city.

Thus it was a pleasant surprise for her at last week's Loeb Lake Task Force Meeting when Kedrowski and representatives of the St. Paul planning department, looking at Taylor but addressing their remarks to the gathered neighbors, categorically stated that eminent domain would not be used in conjunction with development of the Jefferson-Smurfit site.

Why the change of heart? It likely came from Kedrowski. He grew up in the Rice Street area and has a sense of the neighborhood. He did not, he said, "want to be the kind of neighbor that used the city to take his neighbors' properties."

"The city probably jumped the gun," he said, referring to the threat of eminent domain.

The task force meeting was the first time that Taylor heard that eminent domain was no longer a consideration. It was welcome news. A few days later, however, after talking with members of the task force, Taylor was again wondering if the city could still take her property. The answer, of course, is that under Kelo all the city needs is evidence of a large-scale redevelopment plan, and, yes, it can.

As Kedrowski noted, "There are other developers that would jump at that property."

And worrying about keeping your home just because it's in a nice location is a heck of a way for a person to live. All the more reason for a priority on state legislative action limiting the use of private-to-private transfers under eminent domain.

Category: Column,