The N-word has been an issue in the sports world recently, but during a meeting Thursday night in Mount Airy there was much concern about another term citizens find just as offensive — eminent domain.
Language that allows property to be condemned and forcibly taken by that method dominated the discussion surrounding a public hearing held before the city board of commissioners. Thursday’s hearing concerned plans for the formation of a redevelopment commission that would determine whether blighted areas exist in town and develop plans to address them.
City Attorney Hugh Campbell explained during a presentation before the hearing that the commission is aimed at encouraging public-private investment to revitalize such areas and create jobs. He called redevelopment “a powerful tool” for accomplishing this.
However, the near-capacity crowd attending the meeting was fixated on the broad powers the commission admittedly would have, according to Campbell.
That would include the ability not only to seize commercial or residential parcels deemed as blighted, but the clearing of property by razing existing buildings; installation or construction of site improvements and preparation; entering into contracts for construction, demolition, moving of structures and repair work; and implementing programs of compulsory repair and rehabilitation using minimum housing codes.
And while Campbell said North Carolina has allowed such redevelopment commissions since the 1950s which have resulted in major projects in various cities he cited, the public hearing attendees did not seem convinced. Many see the city’s plans, while maybe well-intended, as being subject to abuse to the detriment of property owners once they regulations are on the books.
“One of the few individual rights we have left in this country is to own our own property,” said Linda Dollyhigh. She was one of numerous people who spoke, either during the hearing itself, or in a loose “town-hall” question-and-answer format that accompanied the attorney’s presentation.
All over the United States, citizens have been losing their holdings, Dollyhigh said, citing mom-and-pop businesses as well as homeowners. “Cities are saying ‘we need your property.’ They’re using eminent domain to take people’s property for things like condos.”
There also was concern by one man that the redevelopment commission procedure would become a “Pandora’s Box” whereby homes that are rundown could be taken and replaced by strip malls and other kinds of developments that generate higher taxes.
“It’s a very, very dangerous slope and I hope y’all take it to heart,” Richard Smith told city officials, who took no action on the proposal Thursday night.
The hearing speakers also included a former city commissioner, Todd Harris, who expressed concern about owners of houses in perfect condition who find themselves caught up in an area deemed as blighted because neighboring homes are in disrepair.
“Houses that are in good shape would not be subject to eminent domain,” said Andy Goodall, a city planner, who explained that the process instead could open up grant and other funding opportunities for the problem properties to be improved.
Harris also referred to plans about 10 years ago to form a utilities commission that also was to have sweeping powers, which city officials shot down in a hurry. “And I urge you to do the same,” Harris told present city leaders regarding the proposal now at hand.
Under the plans, the redevelopment commission would be made up of five to nine members, who would determine if areas are blighted and formulate a plan to address them. Plans would have to be approved by the commissioners and a public hearing process also would be required.
Campbell stressed that the commission would be strictly regulated, including being forbidden to act on properties in which any members have a financial interest. “You can’t feather your own nest,” he said of rules governing the commission’s membership.
“Where it goes and what what is developed, we’re a long way from knowing,” Campbell said. “There’s no external pressure that’s being brought.”
The matter seemed to boil down to the issue of distrust of government in general in the minds of citizens present Thursday night, especially once the commission is approved and its powers are allowed.
“Eminent domain is basically the discussion that’s going on here,” Bruce Springthorpe said after venturing to the podium. “I think that’s what the majority of people in town are afraid of.”
Springthorpe said eminent domain has been abused throughout history. “It’s been used for revenge and just for spite — it’s a dangerous weapon in the hands of government.” The state Legislature has said redevelopment programs are OK. “But it’s not OK,” added Springthorpe, who remarked that just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be.
While property owners who get involved in the process could appeal and seek remedies in court, Springthorpe suggested this is no guarantee of justice. “I’ll wager that 99 percent of the cases are lost by private citizens.”
Springthorpe charged that corruption “will happen” if such guidelines are adopted here, whether by a group or single member.
“I don’t want to see this happen here,” he added. “I don’t want to see this power granted to non-elected officials” who wouldn’t be accountable to citizens in the voting booth.
Angie Moser, who also spoke, objected to the idea of commissions and other governmental bodies wielding influence on property owners trying to do the best they can. Moser said she thinks it would be better to form a commission “to go out an help people.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.