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Suburbs see condemnation as redevelopment strategy; Frequent tool in cities, eminent domain a thorny problem in the counties


Suburban counties -- eyeing a weapon Baltimore and other cities have used against urban blight -- are looking to wield the power of condemnation to revitalize their commercial corridors.

In Baltimore County, officials are exploring whether the local government can use eminent domain to take small parcels in 12 old business districts and assemble them into larger, more marketable properties.

In Prince George's County, a newly formed Redevelopment Authority has been given the same power to seize residential and commercial properties and resell them for development.

Just as downtown Main Street gave way to suburban strip shopping centers, the strip centers are giving way to retail power centers, said Jeffrey Finkle, head of the Council for Urban Economic Development, a national organization of economic development directors.

With cities using condemnation to foster economic development, suburban counties nationwide are starting to follow their example, he said. "There are new kinds of development taking place. They need new types of properties to prepare for that future."

Neither Baltimore County nor Prince George's County has identified properties to condemn, officials in those counties say.

But the strategy could be useful in areas such as Pikesville, Catonsville and Essex, where commercial parcels tend to be small and held by a variety of property owners, said Robert L. Hannon, county economic development director.

Although the county would encourage property owners to form alliances to redevelop their land, that might not always be possible, he said.

"Our endgame is not condemnation but economic development," Hannon said. "It would be a tool of last resort."

The prospect of condemnation for economic development puts local business leaders in a quandary, however.

Although they want to see new stores in their shopping districts, they hate to see the progress come at the expense of long-time retailers.

"Put an 'I don't know' after my name," said Maureen Sweeney Smith, director of the Greater Catonsville Chamber of Commerce.

"You need these anchors to draw the people," Smith said. But she added, "You don't want to hurt the existing businesses."

Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retailers Association, said that while the condemnation of underused properties might serve a greater public good, governments must understand that seizing land can hurt merchants and their customers.

"A lot of government officials can't understand why retailers don't like this," Saquella said. "But just because a business doesn't look real attractive doesn't mean it isn't profitable."

After revitalization, the original retailers may no longer be able to afford to lease the properties, and customers may no longer be able to afford the products, he said.

Gary Van Hoven, president of the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce and owner of a local bagel shop, said he supports condemnation to eliminate dilapidated buildings, but not to develop large chain retailers in the old commercial districts.

"To me, I don't believe that is smart growth," he said. "The smaller business community is the backbone of the country."

Condemnation -- with fair market compensation -- has long been used for public projects such as roads, schools and parks.

And Baltimore County has condemned properties to eliminate blight, as it did when it tore down Riverdale Apartments in Middle River last year.

Hannon said what is less clear is whether the law allows the county to take properties that might not be blighted, but still are not living up to their potential.

County Attorney Virginia W. Barnhart said that while a final determination hasn't been made, it seems reasonable to assume the county could condemn land and then resell it to a developer. "An area can't be healthy if it is an eyesore," she said.

Prince George's determined its laws weren't clear on the issue and in 1996 obtained permission from the General Assembly to create an authority that could condemn residential and commercial property for redevelopment, said acting County Attorney Barbara Holtz.

Even if the law allows condemnation, there are reasons to hesitate, Hannon said.

"There are private property rights that need to be respected," he said.

Robert McKinney, president of the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce, which has taken no position on the county's plan, said that "pretty stringent safeguards" are a necessity.

But as suburban counties throughout the nation run out of vacant land, they will need to use condemnation to aid in redevelopment, Finkle said. "Every 7-Eleven standing there is not going to be standing 15 years from now."

Pub Date: 1/12/99

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