Originally created 07/03/05

Court's ruling heightens eminent domain battles



STOCKBRIDGE, Ga. - Mark Meeks has a problem.

The city of Stockbridge is threatening to condemn the flower shop he and his wife, Regina, have run for the past 22 years. The couple has built a business and hope to someday be able to retire on the money brought in from the plants, teddy bears and balloons they sell.

Now, they face the prospect of losing their property to the city's grand plans for a development full of shops, condominiums and a pair of new government buildings.

"It's been devastating," Mr. Meeks said. "We live with this day and night. This is more or less a huge part of our retirement income."

But across the state, Andy Cheek also has a problem.

The Augusta Commission member is looking into the city's options in dealing with about two dozen properties in an area plagued by crime and drugs. Properties such as those at the center of Mr. Cheek's current negotiations are often run by absentee landowners or those who just don't care to keep up their real estate.

And it's hard to get them to sell.

"You've got your carrot," Mr. Cheek said of the offers the city makes. "So we need a stick, too."

The battle over eminent domain - the power of governments to seize private properties for public benefits - had already become a powder keg in Georgia before a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision set it off. In a case from Connecticut, the high court ruled that cities, counties and others could seize land not only for roads, schools and water treatment plants but also for economic development purposes.

Since then, state leaders have vowed to protect private property from what they deem unjust land grabs by local governments. Although local governments are supposed to pay owners a fair value for their property, the price tag often becomes a subject of dispute.

Despite the ruling, local government officials are urging caution, pleading with the state to take its time in making any changes to the law.

Mr. Meeks needs protection, they say, but Mr. Cheek needs his stick.

IN 2003, Mr. Meeks got an offer from a real estate company looking to buy land for an Eckerd drugstore in Stockbridge. The offer was hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and a property just behind the store. And it was still visible from the highway that is the current perch for Stockbridge Florist & Gifts.

"That's the only reason we were even interested," Mr. Meeks said.

The building is a simple, one-story brick and wood building that sits on the town's main drag, North Henry Boulevard. Bunting and a pair of flower beds sit outside; inside, visitors can grab a free American flag sticker to put on their car.

But the city had its own plans for the land. While Mr. Meeks was still working on the deal with the representatives for Eckerd, a new ordinance was passed that restricted the size of drugstores and other kinds of retail establishments in the area to no more than 5,000 square feet. That was smaller than what Eckerd would need, essentially killing the deal.

By the next year, plans for a "multi-use" development in the neighborhood were being considered, and negotiations began between the Meekses and a new agent, this one for the city-backed project.

Eventually, a deal was reached: the Meekses would sell in return for a shop and a condominium in the new development. In early 2005, though, they were told that the agent was no longer working for city government. The trouble began anew.

The city's offer was inadequate, Mr. Meeks said, because he estimated that the cash and property being offered by Eckerd's agent was worth about $500,000 more. And there was no new land in the Stockbridge proposal.

"We can't afford property on this highway, not for what they're trying to pay," Mr. Meeks said.

AS PART OF A PUSH to get rid of crime and drug havens on his city's south side, Mr. Cheek and his fellow Augusta commissioners are looking at using eminent domain if negotiations with one stubborn landowner go nowhere.

The property owner in question has a history of not paying taxes on time and allowing the properties to fall into disrepair. That, Mr. Cheek said, is why local governments need the power to seize land from time to time.

"Cities really need to be able to deal with blighted areas," Mr. Cheek said, though he thinks there needs to be a legitimate purpose. "I don't want to take anybody's property without a good reason. ... If there are people in those homes, paying their taxes, doing the right thing, we don't need to use this tool."

The proper use of eminent domain can be a "death sentence for slumlords," Mr. Cheek said.

About two or three years ago, the city passed a public-nuisance ordinance to try to rid the city of blight.

Since then, condemnation has been used rarely, if at all. Often, it doesn't come to that.

"Most of the time, the landlords wake up and see we're serious," Mr. Cheek said.

It can be a useful way to get a meaningful dialogue going with owners.

"If we lose that leverage, then we're going to be stuck with these areas because these people just don't care, some of them," Mr. Cheek said.

Sen. Jeff Chapman, a Brunswick Republican pushing for restrictions on eminent domain, said cases such as the one involving the Meekses show that there are problems in Georgia. And eminent domain isn't the only way to deal with run-down houses, said Mr. Chapman, a former county commissioner.

In Georgia, there is already talk of a law restricting eminent domain and a possible amendment to the state constitution. Mr. Chapman sponsored a bill that would bar governments from using their powers to seize land for the purpose of economic development or expanding the local tax base.

The proposal sailed through the Senate but was held up in the House to see what the U.S. Supreme Court would do. That measure will now get another look, House Speaker Glenn Richardson said last week.

Vicky Eckenrode contributed to this report.

Reach Brandon Larrabee at (404) 681-1701 or brandon.larrabee@morris.com.