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Area officials say they would not use broadened powers

June 25, 2005|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

TRI-STATE - It is unlikely that local officials would use new, broader powers to take private land that were granted in a Thursday ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, local officials said Friday.

The high court ruled 5-4 that the City of New London, Conn., did not violate residents' constitutional rights when it decided to condemn those residents' land and give it to pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc., which wanted to turn the land into a research park.

Local government officials in Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania who were contacted Thursday and Friday said a scenario similar to the one in New London is unlikely here, and handing over land from one private owner to another is even less likely.

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"I think that's pressing the envelope, if you will, for what Hagerstown and even Washington County would think of condemnation," Hagerstown City Attorney John Urner said.

George Karos, mayor of Martinsburg, W.Va., said he can't imagine cities being allowed to tear down homes to generate tax revenue.

"I think it's absolutely ridiculous," Karos said. "I don't see the City of Martinsburg ever doing that."

Rural areas probably won't see much of an effect from the court's decision either, said L. Michael Ross, president of the Franklin County Area Development Corporation.

"We have to be very diligent to prove there is an economic benefit to eminent domain locally," Ross said. "Even when local government is on firm ground, elected officials are very reluctant to go that route."

Peggy Smith, newly elected mayor of Charles Town, W.Va., expressed concerns about the ruling.

Smith said she thinks the city would avoid bulldozing homes for private development "by any means possible."

But that is exactly what could happen under the ruling, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in her dissenting opinion.

"The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory," O'Connor wrote.

Wal-Mart, for instance, is one name that persists nationally in development and retail circles, including Washington County. The stores usually bring hundreds of jobs, but often are feared for their effect on small business.

While the Wal-Mart Supercenter west of Hagerstown is one of the top-selling stores in the country, rumors have swirled about a second store coming to the area since an attempt to put one on the east side of the city was defeated in court in 2001.

The City of Hagerstown also is the focal point of a revitalization plan that includes the possibility of a new or upgraded baseball stadium, new housing and commercial space, which often is referred to as the East End Redevelopment plan.

Eminent domain has not come up in discussions for either the East End Redevelopment or Wal-Mart, and Hagerstown City Councilman Kristin B. Aleshire said he hopes that's the way it stays.

"No way," Aleshire said about the possibility of condemnation for the retail giant. He felt similarly for using the power in the city's East End. With some studies showing Hagerstown as a rising star, Aleshire said it's not the time or place to consider taking private land.

"It isn't like we're a Pennsylvania steel town and the jobs are gone," Aleshire said.

Washington County Commissioner James F. Kercheval said eminent domain rarely is used in his jurisdiction.

"I think eminent domain should be a last resort. ... It's when your hands are to the fire," Kercheval said. Washington County isn't in that position, though.

"We're doing fine as far as our tax base goes," Kercheval said.

Staff writers Dave McMillion and Richard F. Belisle contributed to this story.

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