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EMINENT DOMAIN

City planners want private property for private developers

(Published May 21, 2001)

By KATHRYN SINZINGER

Staff Writer

City planning officials have been quietly laying the legal groundwork that will enable them to employ eminent domain as a means of eradicating "nuisance properties" and replacing them with private housing development.

At least one elected official in Ward 8, who recently became aware of plans to use eminent domain in her neighborhood, is objecting strenuously to the process.

"They’re talking about moving us out," said Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8D chairman Robin D. Ijames, who said her name was attached without her knowledge to a task force that supports the planned use of eminent domain in Bellevue, off South Capitol Street.

Eminent domain, the right of a government to take over private property for public use, has historically been used to accommodate government buildings, roads and public utilities, such as sewers. The law requires private owners be paid "just compensation" for their property, which a government acquires through court proceedings.

"They’re planning to build $400,000 houses here," Ijames said. "Look at their drawing of a ‘typical single-family house’ – it’s got 13 windows on the front. The people in this neighborhood can’t afford that."

Pam Askew of William C. Smith & Co., who acknowledged she has been a part of the Far SE/SW Bellevue Revitalization Team, said her company provided the city with the drawings of "typical" single-family homes and townhouses to provide a concept of what might be there. The city wants to replace a group of largely vacant, dilapidated apartment buildings that for years have attracted crime and vagrancy to the area.

"We’re looking to improve the neighborhood," Askew said, noting her company owns or manages four major apartment complexes in the area. "We would foresee that the city would put it out for [bids] and open it up for anybody."

The unit blocks of Forrester Street and Galveston Place SW, "the initial project work focus" of the Bellevue task force, are one of six "Capital Community" revitalization areas designated by the Williams administration as part of the mayor’s Neighborhood Action initiative. City planners also have targeted the 4300 block of Halley Terrace SE in Ward 8 for revitalization through the use of eminent domain.

City planners also have designated areas along Georgia Avenue and in Shaw for use of eminent domain, but specific locations could not be determined from available information. Calls to several city officials involved in the planning process were not returned. City Councilmen Jim Graham and Adrian Fenty, who represent the wards through which Georgia Avenue runs, said they have not been informed of plans to use eminent domain to revitalize the avenue.

Ijames charged that she and others in her neighborhood have been excluded from the planning process for revitalizing their area.

In fact, two members of a recently formed resident steering committee for the neighborhood planning cluster that includes Bellevue wrote to Mayor Anthony A. Williams in March to complain that Ward 8 Planner Venita Ray also apparently has not been privy to some of the city’s plans for their neighborhood.

"We found that critical information continues to be withheld from both the Ward 8 Planner and the community at large," said the letter signed by residents S. Patrice Sheppard and Lois Childs. "If in fact, you are going to acknowledge and incorporate the results of our visioning process, it must begin with your embracing the basic tenants [sic] of mutual trust and understanding."

Almost 30 residents from the Bellevue-Washington Highlands area graduated last fall from a year-long Johns Hopkins University program called "Empowering Neighborhood People," which for several years has selected specific D.C. neighborhoods whose residents are trained to become community leaders.

As an outgrowth of that program, Ijames and other participants formed the Southwest Hill Residents Association and a nonprofit fund-raising organization to create their own revitalization plans for the neighborhood.

In January, Ijames replaced Winifred Freeman as chairman of ANC 8D after Freeman, who had been listed as a member of the Bellevue task force, did not seek re-election. Ijames asserts that Freeman, whom Mayor Williams recognized during his 2000 State of the District address for her community leadership as part of the task force, did not relay information about what the task force was doing to her fellow ANC commissioners or to the community at large. Freeman could not be reached for comment.

Last November, City Auditor Deborah Nichols issued a report that questioned the legality of how Freeman and O.V. Johnson, then-treasurer of ANC 8D, spent about $33,000 of the ANC’s funds. The auditor’s report said the money was disbursed over a three-year period "without the approval of a majority of ANC 8D commissioners," which is required by law. Ijames had long contended that Freeman and Johnson were running the ANC undemocratically and illegally before the auditor issued her report. Freeman and Johnson both denied doing anything illegal.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator