Supreme Court Deals Blow To Cities' Eminent Domain Authority

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled Monday that cities cannot declare a blighted urban renewal area cured, then condemn the land without holding a hearing to determine if the property has deteriorated.

The case involves the city of Arvada, which has been trying to condemn a lake so that a Super Wal-Mart could be built over it, despite angry protests from residents.

"Once blight has been cured or eliminated from a particular parcel, a renewal authority loses its statutory power of condemnation over that parcel," the court said, ordering a lower court to dismiss the condemnation.

A Jefferson County District Court has already ruled that the Arvada Urban Renewal Authority could condemn the lake.

Mike Polk, attorney for the Arvada Urban Renewal Authority, said the case may be dropped. "At this point, our inclination is to accept the findings of the court," Polk said.

Dave Minshall, spokesman for "Save the Lake," a group of Arvada citizens fighting the city's plan, said the city misused a 1981 blight study to condemn private property this year.

"Colorado citizens have been telling their city councils eminent domain was out of control for years," he said. "If city councils would listen to their citizens instead of Wal-Mart and big-money developers, this never would have happened."

The dispute has led to legislation (House Bill 1203) that would allow business owners who think their land has been unfairly taken by the government and turned over to another company to have the right to take officials to court and have the municipality foot the bill.

The bill was originally intended to ban cities from forcing out small business owners in order to turn the property over to a large national retailer, a practice some think is being abused along the Front Range by cities eager to boost sales tax revenues.

Cities are able to force landowners to sell them their property under their eminent domain authority, power originally intended to help governments get land to benefit the public for uses like roads and schools. That authority has been broadly interpreted to allow governments to take land for redevelopment projects intended to benefit the public.

Colorado is one five states considering limiting that authority to protect property owners.

The city of Arvada had wanted to fill a dark empty building near 52nd and Wadsworth and Super Wal-Mart was the only business that had shown interest. But the store said it's not coming unless it can use 2 acres of the nearby lake for its parking lot. Roughly 800 residents around the area have signed petitions to stop their city government from condemning the lake.

"You want to ruin our community for the dollar and it is never enough, it is always more, more more," said concerned resident Robin Stephenson. "What is it going to do to the community as far as traffic, congestion? ... There are issues of draining the whole lake which would kill out all the wildlife."

City Councilman Steve Urban, who represents the district, said a grocery store is a positive change for this part of the city.

"If it doesn't come to Arvada it is going to go up the street to Wheat Ridge," said Urban.

The Constitution gives local governments the right to condemn property through eminent domain. The fifth amendment indicates the condemned or blighted land would go to public use. The problem is that the term "public use" has been interpreted very broadly by the courts. In many cases, the government condemns land only to hand it over to private companies, according to the national Landlord Tenant Guides.

Local governments argue that the move allows them to create a bigger tax base and more jobs. Critics say it is an abuse of the Constitution.

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