To push development, cities turn to eminent domain as a last resort

Tuesday, May 27, 2008 at 3:04am
Joy Ford’s Country International Records near the Music Row Roundabout was the target of takeover through eminent domain until the city, the developer and she worked on a compromise. Matthew Williams/The City Paper

The words eminent domain can stir the passions of many over property rights, even if the owners aren’t directly affected by eminent domain.

If the property owner is directly involved, the battle can be arduous, intense and delicate on the rare occasion when eminent domain is used for economic development to help expand the property tax base.

A prime example now is the current situation with Joy Ford, owner of Country International Records, at the Music Row Roundabout.

She continues to dance with the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency over its intent to take her property through eminent domain so Houston-based Lionstone can do a mixed-use development.

It is a “threat” she’s been dealing with for years, starting with a developer previous to Lionstone. Her son Carroll Ford said the effort to buy his mother’s property started with bullying, with any offer being immediately followed by, “We can just take your property.”

That has had her back up ever since. A little over a week ago, Ford was still ready to take the issue to court and battle, her son said. There’s been a shift, however, that could mean an amicable end.

“It’s looking to be smoother climate,” Ford said. “I’d be encouraged that something positive is going to happen.”

What helped is that Joy Ford learned she has the option of redeveloping the squat cinderblock building herself and having it conform with what Lionstone has planned.

“That seems the most promising for Nashville and Joy,” her son said.

That will be an option weighed against fighting condemnation in court and potentially losing since the courts have tended to favor the government’s ability to take property for economic development purposes.

Three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court sent shockwaves throughout the country by siding with New London, Conn., in its ability to take property for economic development purposes.

Many thought the court had suddenly given municipalities a new power when in fact it simply reaffirmed what had been in place for 50 years.

Typically, eminent domain is used for roads and sewers and other public infrastructure. But at some point economic purposes took a broader definition and the U.S. Supreme Court gave the green light.

Still, politicians everywhere, including Tennessee, scrambled to limit eminent domain though legislation. Tennessee tweaked the law here some but didn’t make a wholesale change.

The law here is considered quite conservative and eminent domain is rarely used for economic development. Often times, it’s the last resort if the city can’t negotiate deal successfully with the property owner.

Developers, attorneys and government officials have said that Nashville has been extraordinarily conservative in using the eminent domain. It was used in building LP Field and the Sommet Center.

Eminent domain can be used only in defined redevelopment districts and generally properties have to be deemed blighted.

“It’s clearly a last resort and not something you really like to do,” said Richard Warren, the Nashville attorney representing Lionstone.

Often times, the legal battle isn’t over property rights but property value and what a city would pay for it.

For Joy Ford, it isn’t about the money. It’s about principle.

Her son Carroll said had his mother been approached initially years ago in a more cooperative — and not a threatening — way, her view of the situation may have been different.

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By: NGNG34 on 12/31/69 at 6:00

The only difference between developers such as Lionstone and common street thieves is that common street thieves have the guts to look their victims in the eye when they steal. Cowards such as Lionstone have to get government thugs to do their stealing for them.

By: BigPapa on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Metro should take all of Dickerson Rd from Jefferson St. to Briely pkwy and auction it off to developers.

By: ngreene on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Get the price right and Ms. Ford will gladly sell the property. To condemn property for the benefit of a developer is totally wrong!

By: NewYorker1 on 12/31/69 at 6:00

I disagree. Look at that property and think about what is proposed for that property. Where talking about a $100 million dollar project that would put people to work as well as generate tax revenues for the city. I think Ford is being a little silly. It's funny how she's willing to sell the property for $12 million and it isn't even worth that.

By: nashbeck on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Thank you NewYorker1. Couldn't agree with you more. I understand how eminent domain can be very cruel, but I think the Lionstone development is great for Nashville. More jobs, more revenue, more aesthetics to our city.

By: JeffF on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Remember though Nash, who among us gets to play "Development God" and decide whether a development is great and worthy of confiscating someone else's property.Aesthetics are used as justification for some crazy stuff. Every city needs ugly places to keep life working as it should. IF you don't you end up with San Francisco or Portland. Everybody talks highly of them but no one can actually afford to live there. They are museum pieces for the very, very rich. In order to have an active, real city you have to have all people (including the poor and the untrustworthy). I hate to hear the words "Context Sensitive Design" because that usually means "usable" is about to take a back seat to "pretty". In this case the current/existing context happens to be a functional but ugly building making money for its current owner. For another example: No one preserves the ugly houses of the poor but people can't save the as ugly houses of the rich (plantation homes) fast enough.

By: Dragon on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Interesting collection of articles today concerning government powers concerning development. This one, using eminent domain justified by economic development (“We can just take your property).There is also the article about the Bellevue Center waiting for the government to use taxpayer (TIF) funding for a retail development. Balance this article with the article about the restaurants feeling a slowdown because of the "sluggish" economy.Add in the LTE concerning Charlotte Ave development (Cars vs. arts).Now step back and ask, "what makes these elected government officials qualified to decide such matters?"