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Eminent domain and spot blight
Property rights advocates are cheering legislation passed by the General Assembly that would tighten the rules on eminent domain. Meanwhile, officials in some of Virginia’s cities are worried that a part of that legislation would weaken a tool the Assembly gave cities to abate blight in urban neighborhoods.
HB 2954 is one of three identical bills that passed the House and Senate this year, and await Governor Kaine’s signature.
The big sticking point for some localities (including Lynchburg) is the way the new law defines blight. That’s significant, because some cities have used the ”spot blight law” the Assembly passed in 1994 to keep neglected, dilapidated structures from bringing down the conditions of the properties around them.
Acquisition through eminent domain is one tool the law gives localities. In Lynchburg’s case, the spot blight program run through its housing authority has at times sparked owners to fix up their properties without the city having to try to acquire or fix them.
But if that doesn’t happen, the law also gives cities the power to repair the home and bill the owner, or to acquire the property and sell it to someone who will take care of it.
But the city has to declare the building a blight first, and that’s where the definition comes in.
The new legislation includes the following definition of blight:
“‘Blighted property’ means any property that endangers the public health and safety in its condition at the time of the filing of the petition for condemnation and is (i) vacant and constitutes a public nuisance or (ii) an individual commercial, industrial, or residential structure or improvement that is beyond repair or unfit for human habitation or use.”
State law currently includes this definition:
“‘Blighted property’ means any individual commercial, industrial, or residential structure or improvement that endangers the public’s health, safety, or welfare because the structure or improvement upon the property is dilapidated, deteriorated, or violates minimum health and safety standards, or any structure or improvement previously designated as blighted pursuant to § 36-49.1:1, under the process for determination of ‘spot blight.’”
Some cities and the Virginia Municipal League are worried that the new definition would mean cities couldn’t use spot blight to acquire a building through eminent domain until it was too far gone to be saved.
City Attorney Kathleen Dooley said she is studying the bill to see how it might impact the spot blight guidelines that Fredericksburg recently adopted.
Fredericksburg officials have discussed using spot blight as a last resort to spur unresponsive property owners to make needed repairs. While acquisition would be one option available, council members have noted that it’s not clear where the money to buy dilapidated properties would come from.