Court Ruling on Land Pleases D.C. Officials

By David Nakamura and Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 24, 2005

District leaders said a Supreme Court ruling yesterday that gives municipalities broad powers to seize private property will provide the city leverage in its goal to acquire land for two controversial projects, including a new baseball stadium.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) had been closely watching an eminent domain case in which homeowners in New London, Conn., sued the city when it attempted to take their land to develop a shopping mall. The court upheld the right of city governments to force property owners to sell to make way for private development.

D.C. officials want to acquire 14 acres near the Anacostia waterfront by the end of the year to build a stadium for the Nationals. They also have been trying to buy the 1950s-era Skyland strip mall in Southeast to build a larger, upscale retail complex. In both cases, city officials say they will invoke eminent domain if necessary.

"I am pleased that the Supreme Court upheld 50 years of precedent today, allowing local officials the continued use of eminent domain to bolster economically depressed neighborhoods," Williams said in a statement.

D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said that the ruling should give the city apowerful hand during negotiations with the 33 property owners at the ballpark site.

"It puts to rest the issue of whether the city has legal rights to take the properties," Evans said. "This strengthens our hand to get control of the property. Hopefully, it will encourage owners to settle with the District and accept a fair price and move on."

The city is completing assessments of property on the ballpark site and expects to begin making offers in late July, said Carol Mitten, director of the Office of Property Management. Property owners will have 30 to 45 days to negotiate with the city, Mitten said. If a deal is not reached, the city will seize the land, and a court will decide the sale price.

Reaction was mixed among attorneys for property owners.

"Any avenue the landowners in Southeast may have had to interpose a constitutional challenge is now moot," said John Barron, who represents several landowners.

But Dale Cooter, who also represents more than one owner, said the court left open some room for challenges in the ballpark case. He said it ruled that land can be taken only for comprehensive redevelopment, and he argued that a baseball stadium does not fit that description.

Kenneth Wyban, who owns a five-bedroom house on the stadium site, said he hoped a court would not support the city's plan to take land for a ballpark .

"It's totally different," Wyban said. "You'd want the city to get the maximum usage out of a property. But you will not realize it with this stadium. It will sit vacant 260 days of the year."

Whayne Quin, a land-use lawyer who has represented the District in the past, said the court decision "strengthens and confirms government authority to condemn land for revitalization."

In the Skyland case, some property owners had been threatening to block the city in court. Yesterday, the National Capital Revitalization Corp., the publicly chartered firm handling the Skyland project for the city, received calls from owners inquiring about how much the city would be willing to pay, said Therman A. Baker Jr., general counsel and chief operating officer.

"All eyes were on this decision," Baker said. "This hopefully removes any uncertainty as to our legal authority and helps to bring people to the table in a very expedited manner."

Elaine Mittelman, an attorney for several Skyland merchants and landlords who sued last year to stop any seizures, said the development in the New London case was better thought out than the new Skyland complex. And the town of New London is more economically depressed than the District as a whole, she said.

"Skyland is significantly different," Mittelman said.

But Williams said in his statement that Skyland "is an area where eminent domain could be used for the good of the entire community."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company