A case pending in the U.S. Supreme Court could affect two major economic development projects in Southeast, including the city's plan to build a baseball stadium there, according to land-use lawyers, planners and city officials.
The court is expected to rule in coming months on whether local governments can use their power of eminent domain to transfer land from one private owner to another solely for the sake of economic development -- as opposed to acquiring it for public uses such as building roads or government offices.
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Oral arguments in Kelo v. City of New London, Conn. were heard yesterday, and D.C. officials are watching the case closely out of concern it could complicate -- or at least raise the cost of -- plans to build a baseball stadium on private property and to redevelop the outdated Skyland shopping center at Alabama Avenue and Good Hope Road SE.
"It's easier just to gobble up farmland and tear down a forest and build out there," in the suburbs, said D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who attended the court proceedings yesterday as a spectator. "If we want smart growth, we need this tool."
Governments routinely use eminent domain to get property needed for public projects, relying on courts to set a fair price for the land if direct negotiations with the landowner do not work out. In the Connecticut case, the landowner challenged the government's right to use that procedure solely for the aim of letting another private owner do something different with the land.
The city needs roughly 21 acres to build a baseball stadium for the Washington Nationals near the Anacostia waterfront, and some of the landowners around the stadium have said they do not want to sell.
"Assuming the [Supreme] Court rules that there are constitutional restrictions on the power of eminent domain for private purposes, the issue will be whether the stadium is really for a public purpose or the giveaway to Major League Baseball that people say it is," said Dale Cooter, an attorney who represents the owner of a porn shop on the baseball site. "This is MLB masquerading as a public good." The owner of the shop does not want to move.
David A. Fuss, a land-use attorney at Wilkes Artis, agreed, saying the "ultimate impact [on the District] could be that condemning private property for baseball doesn't meet the Supreme Court's ruling on what are the standards of public use.
"That could grind to a halt the entire stadium construction and development," Fuss said, and leave landowners able to demand whatever price they want from the city.
Williams disagreed, saying the Kelo case is unlikely to affect the stadium because the facility would be owned by the city. But he did say that if the ballpark were leased at "too low a rate" to the Nationals' owner, an argument could be made that it is benefiting a private entity and the Kelo case would apply.