Baltimore defended its favored property seizure technique before Maryland's highest court yesterday in a case that could force the city to rethink its long-established strategy for neighborhood revitalization.
City attorneys argued that without a near-instantaneous version of eminent domain called "quick take," Baltimore's urban renewal efforts would wither on the vine. But attorneys for a Charles North bar owner challenged the constitutionality of a process that grants officials immediate ownership of property without having to prove why they need it so urgently or for what specific purpose.
The pointed questions and comments of two Court of Appeals judges conveyed strong skepticism of Baltimore's redevelopment policy, particularly the wisdom in taking someone's land first, then figuring out what to do with it later - because the legality of eminent domain centers on taking property only for the public good.
"When the city filed the quick take, it had no clue as to what it intended to do with this piece of property?" Judge Alan M. Wilner asked Baltimore's attorney, adding later: "You don't see a constitutional issue here?"
In May, in what land-use officials called the first time the court has blocked a Baltimore quick take seizure, Circuit Court Judge John Philip Miller ruled that city economic development officials failed to show "sufficient grounds" to warrant taking a Charles North bar and package goods shop called The Magnet.
The city moved to condemn the bar at 1924 N. Charles St. and about 20 other properties in the area to assemble a sizable tract to offer developers. Officials hoped to revitalize the depressed area sandwiched between Mount Vernon and Charles Village along the busy Charles Street corridor.
Citing the 2005 Supreme Court ruling that affirmed government's right to seize private property for economic development, Miller wrote that Kelo v. New London showed that a municipality first must show "a carefully considered development plan."
Typically, the Baltimore Development Corp. seizes property and then leaves it up to developers vying for the land to decide whether they want to build houses, shops, offices or something else.
"You don't know if it's going to be a Pizza Hut or a Saks Fifth Avenue or a fancy grocery or a bunch of restaurants," Court of Appeals Judge Dale R. Cathell said yesterday. "You don't know what's going to happen. And it could take a year or it could be two years."
But city attorney Elva E. Tillman argued that quick take was the city's last resort to redevelop Charles North after failed negotiations with some property owners - including Magnet owner George Valsamaki.
According to Valsamaki's attorney, John C. Murphy, the city offered $140,000 for the three-story building.
"The situation is dire in Charles North," Tillman said. "If you go [there and] if you look at these properties ... you see this property is in poor condition and you see it's surrounded by vacant lots."
As the judges questioned Tillman about the city's lack of a plan for The Magnet site, she said the idea for the area was mixed-use development - meaning a project that combines residential units of some sort with such things as stores, offices and parking.
"Why is it not preferable to assume there's going to be an assemblage of property and let developers bid and say what they're going to do with it?" Wilner asked. "Then the courts can know whether that is a proper public use."
Responded Tillman: "Developers are not going to bid on properties with no possibility of getting titles for them."
The city filed a quick take petition on The Magnet in March, immediately gaining possession of the property without a hearing.
Valsamaki learned of the seizure in an affidavit reading, "The property ... must be in possession of the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore at the earliest time in order to assist in a business expansion of the area." He had 10 days to challenge the seizure, which he did, calling the city's stated reason for taking his property "patently insufficient."
Murphy said that reading the affidavit, both he and his client wrongly assumed the city was taking the bar so that some city company could expand. The rushed situation, he added, left little time to prepare an adequate appeal.
"That you don't have discovery in a matter as important as taking property to me is just unfathomable," he said. "That's just got to be wrong."
Valsamaki ran The Magnet for 32 years but closed it about two months ago, frustrated, he said, by questions hanging over the property's future.
After yesterday's hearing, he said the bar was his and his wife's livelihood.
"If we win this case," he said, "it's winning rights for every property owner in this country."
If Maryland's highest court upholds the Circuit Court decision and casts doubt on the legality of the quick take, Baltimore - a city famous for its heavy reliance on eminent domain - would almost definitely have to change its ways.
Tillman told the court that such a result could be disastrous for the city.
"Making Baltimore City use regular eminent domain," she said, "would in fact set us back so dramatically."
Cathell asked Murphy's co-counsel, James L. Thompson, whether he realized that the case he was pushing could "cause upheaval in Baltimore City?"
"I think it will change things," Thompson responded. "I don't think it will prohibit an Inner Harbor or a Charles Center, but I think it will mean they will have to acknowledge our constitutional rights."
The judges did not give any indication about when they will issue their ruling.