9/12/2005

Eminent domain not main issue in Norwood : Cincinnati (OH) Enquirer, 9/10/05

By Steve Kemme

Eminent domain - the legal tool allowing governments to seize private property - has thrust Norwood [OH] into the national spotlight over the past three years.

But the city's battle to force five property owners to sell to a developer so that the planned Rookwood Exchange office-retail-condo development can be built appears unlikely to have much impact on the current Norwood City Council races.

Of the eight council members running for re-election, all but Keith Moore consistently supported the use of eminent domain in the Rookwood Exchange case.

Some residents and City Council challengers say the eminent domain issue has faded.

They also say that Norwood's financial crisis poses a more pressing concern.

"It will be an issue for people in southern Norwood," said Rick Hursh, co-chairman of a nonpartisan community activist group called Citizens for a Better Norwood.

The controversy focused on an area bordered by Interstate 71 and Edwards and Edmondson roads.

"But for me, the greatest issue for the election will be the city finances and the inability of the leaders of the city to address the financial issues."

Ann Connolly, who lives on Smith Road near the Rookwood developments, said eminent domain won't play a role in her vote.

"As much as I hate all this traffic, I think eminent domain was used for the benefit of Norwood," said Connolly, a 73-year-old who has lived in Norwood for 55 years.

Loretta Phillips, 38, voiced a similar view.

"It's sad people had to lose their houses, but they were financially compensated for it," she said. "I think putting all that development over there is bringing a lot of revenue to Norwood."

Norwood faces a year-end deficit of $1.5 million to $2 million because of years of overspending and delays in the construction of the $125 million Rookwood Exchange and other major commercial development projects.

For almost a year, Norwood has been on the state's fiscal watch list, Ohio's second most serious economic designation for financially troubled communities.

City leaders say they have been working for the past two years to cut expenses while maintaining services and avoiding layoffs. They expect the Rookwood Exchange and other planned developments to help lift the city out of its crisis.

The primary reminders of the eminent domain controversy are the three two-story buildings, standing like solitary soldiers of a defeated army on the Rookwood Exchange property.

The other 66 houses and businesses have been torn down. But the fate of the three remaining properties won't be decided until the Ohio Supreme Court makes its final ruling in the case.

For this election, City Council has been reduced from nine seats to seven because of Norwood's declining population. There are three at-large seats and four ward seats. There had been six ward seats.

Betty Howard, an independent challenger trying to unseat Democrat Will DeLuca in Ward 3, said the eminent domain issue caused her to run for council.

"One of the current council members seeking re-election said on the council floor that the only way for residents to protect their properties from being taken by eminent domain for private development is to elect council members who won't vote for it," Howard said. "That's one of the big reasons I'm running for City Council in Ward 3. I won't vote for it."

But Brigid Kelly, a Democratic challenger running against Republican incumbent Cassandra Brown in Ward 2, said she doesn't view eminent domain as an issue in her race. "I have some personal reservations about the way eminent domain was used," she said. "But a lot of voters are concerned about the financial state of the city."

Former mayor Victor Schneider, a GOP challenger for an at-large seat, and Todd Tittle, a Republican challenger against Democrat John Mumper in Ward 4, also say eminent domain isn't a big issue any more.

Schneider commented instead on the breakdown of council members by party. Mayor Tom Williams and seven of nine council members are Democrats. In the previous regime, Republicans dominated. "Citizens in Norwood can see where having one party with complete power is not the best way to run the city," Schneider said.

Melissa Miller, 33, who lives near I-71 on Avilla Place, said she's more concerned about safety in schools, recreation for children and street repairs than eminent domain.


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