By Sharon Coolidge
The Cincinnati Enquirer
After two years of fighting to stay in their Norwood neighborhood, five home and business owners whose property the city wants are taking their battle to court.
In a trial beginning today in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court, the property owners are challenging the city's plan to take their homes through eminent domain and transfer the property to Anderson Real Estate and Miller-Valentine Group.
The developers want to expand Rookwood Commons and build Rookwood Exchange, a $125 million complex of offices, shops, condos, apartments, restaurants and a parking garage.
Judge Beth Myers must decide whether the city has the right to seize five properties for urban renewal and if the city's procedure for seizing the properties is constitutional.
Governmental bodies can take land by eminent domain for public uses or invoke it over areas deemed blighted. In exchange, property owners must be paid fair market value.
"This is a blatant misuse of the urban renewal process," said Scott G. Bullock, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, which is representing the five property owners. "This area is not blighted and everybody knows the real motivation for declaring it blighted, and that is to take the properties to build Rookwood Exchange."
Cincinnati attorney Richard Tranter, who represents Rookwood Partners, a joint venture of Jeffrey R. Anderson Real Estate Inc. and Miller Valentine Partners, said Rookwood Exchange would benefit the community.
"The institute's position would gut decades of Ohio law and deprive Ohio's cities of their most effective tool for eliminating blight," Tranter said. "The constitutional protection afforded to the five holdouts is the right to compensation, not the right to veto city council's actions after months of deliberation."
'Fighting to make ends meet'
The area in question is a triangular piece of property bounded by Interstate 71 and Edmondson and Edwards roads and involves 71 properties. Sixty-five owners have agreed to sell for a minimum of 25 percent above the fair market value. One is still negotiating.
That leaves five owners who want to stay: Joy and Carl Gamble, who own a home on Atlantic Avenue; Joe Horney, who owns a rental home on Atlantic Avenue; the owners of Wilker Design on Edwards Road; and the owners of Kumon Math and Reading Center and Hyde Park Holistic Center, both on Edmondson Road.
The battle began in the summer of 2002 when the project was proposed. The city saw the project as a way to help a neighborhood being squeezed by development, heavy traffic, the interstate and noise from all three, said attorney Timothy Burke, who is representing Norwood in the case.
The Hyde Park Holistic Center and the Kumon Math and Reading Center on Edmondson Rd.
(Tony Jones photo)
Norwood is working to resolve a $3.5 million deficit in part because the city's industrial base is decaying, Burke said.
The loss of the General Motors plant and its more than 7,000 jobs is the most well known, but nearly a dozen other businesses have closed in recent years.
"Norwood is fighting to make ends meet," Burke said. "It is restructuring debt, cutting services and searching for new economic development opportunities."
The city is hoping the Rookwood development will help by adding to the city's tax base and boosting property values.
Increased property value of the area means more money for schools; there will be jobs created and condominiums mean new residents, Burke said.
"As the mayor of Norwood reminded me yesterday, it's not about revenue, it's about responding to people's needs who live there," Burke said.
Most residents immediately agreed to sell their property to Anderson. A handful resisted, calling the neighborhood their home or the perfect place to do business.
Anderson requested an urban renewal study in March 2003, which city council members agreed to and Anderson paid for.
The study said the neighborhood's residential appeal had drastically diminished over the years. The properties "are generally in fair to good condition," but the report stressed that I-71 and other developments in the area "have had a negative influence on what was once a higher-quality single family residential area."
It detailed signs of deterioration, like faulty street arrangements that include poor buffering of sidewalks from traffic, dead-end streets with inadequate turn-around space for emergency vehicles and houses on the north end of Edwards that are close to a highway entrance ramp.
The study shocked the institute's Bullock, who through his work with the Washington, D.C.-based public interest law firm, said he has seen similar studies done, but never in an area as nice as the Norwood neighborhood.
Most blight studies are done in run-down areas with property owners who are delinquent on paying taxes, he said.
With help from the Institute for Justice, about a dozen home and business owners who didn't want to move filed a lawsuit against Norwood. The suit asked the court to stop the city from condemning their property based on blight. A judge threw that suit out, saying it was improperly filed. The judge said property owners could make the blight argument when Norwood filed lawsuits to take the property. The institute is appealing that ruling.
In November, Norwood filed its lawsuit to take the five properties through eminent domain. That case is being heard today"We want to make sure cities don't rent out their eminent domain authority to the highest bidder,'' he said. "If they're able to do that, then nobody's property in the state of Ohio is going to be safe."
Project on hold
Mary Beth Wilker, owner of Wilker Design, said her graphic design business is her dream and it's worth fighting for, even if many of her neighbors don't agree.
Two years ago she and her husband spent six months landscaping, painting and bringing the property up to city code standards. Now, she says, her business is an attractive fixture in the neighborhood.
"I don't understand how this can be allowed to happen," she said. "I don't believe Norwood should be able to take my business and hand it over to another business they favor more. Eminent domain should be used for roads and police stations, not for Crate and Barrel and condominiums."
Donna Laake, who lived on Atlantic Avenue for more than 25 years before moving to another Norwood neighborhood in November, said the property owners like herself who want to sell are being held hostage by the Institute for Justice.The developers will not pay property owners until they have secured all the land.
Some residents have already left, abandoning their homes or turning them into rental properties. Laake said there is too much noise from Rookwood Pavilion and the interstate.
"If you're on Atlantic Avenue, it's pretty quiet," she said. "But move 50 yards in any direction, there is traffic noise and light pollution."
Until the issue is resolved, Rookwood Exchange remains on hold.
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