A two-story Polk Street home built in 1818 is a clear link to Lynchburg’s past.
Home to the city’s first poet, Bransford Vawter, the property fell into severe disrepair and the owner showed no willingness to restore it.
Despite pleas from local residents and several offers to buy the dilapidated property, the owner refused.
As a last resort, the city government in 2006 stepped in and exercised an important, yet controversial, power. To save the home from demolition, officials took the property using eminent domain and sold it to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.
But because of a Virginia General Assembly action this year, city officials are concerned they may lose the tool that allowed them to save the Vawter House.
“I feel personally that it was overreach by the General Assembly,” Vice Mayor Bert Dodson said. “This is real crucial leverage we have to hold people accountable.”
The tool is called the “spot blight” program. It gives cities across the state the ability to target dilapidated properties that depress neighboring property values, and in some cases can harbor criminal activity.
Lynchburg has used the program on 60 blighted properties over past eight years, raising property values by $1 million. Four more homes will be in front of City Council at its next scheduled meeting.
State lawmakers were responding to a controversial 2005 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court called “Kelo v. the City of New London.” It allowed an economically depressed Connecticut town to take private homes and transfer the properties to a company that would generate more jobs and tax revenue for the locality.
Both Del. Shannon Valentine, D-Lynchburg, and Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, voted for the restrictions on eminent domain. Newman became a key late-session player who helped shepherd the legislation.
The bill would constrict the definition of blight from a property that endangers public health “because the structure … is dilapidated” to a property that “is vacant and constitutes a public nuisance” or “is beyond repair or unfit for human habitation.”
Lynchburg officials worry that if the governor signs the bill into law, it will be so restrictive that it will eliminate the spot blight program, which is designed to remove rundown properties from irresponsible owners.
City Council recently voted 6-0 to send a letter to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine asking him to amend the legislation to include a broader definition of blight. The city’s Redevelopment & Housing Authority voted to do the same.
Dodson, who met with the governor in Roanoke on Thursday, said eminent domain “is definitely on his radar.”
City Attorney Walter Erwin said the General Assembly may have missed the point of spot blight.
“The city wants to preserve rather than demolish our housing stock,” he said.
But if officials have to wait until a structure is “beyond repair,” as it states in the legislation, cities will have no choice but to hold off on eminent domain proceedings until homes like the Vawter house have to be razed.
“You’re losing a little bit of your history when you do that,” Erwin said.
Ed McCann, director of the city’s housing authority, agreed.
“The alternative to our program is demolition of houses,” he said. “We’ve done that before; we’ve demolished a lot of houses. We think there’s a better way now.”
Erwin said he was surprised by the General Assembly action, especially since it passed a resolution in 1994 outlining the benefits of the spot blight program. That document says that dilapidated properties could create havens for crime, impair growth and cause an exodus of local businesses from blighted areas.
“All those problems are just as true today as they were back when that study was done,” he said.
Some legislators, including Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, were concerned that localities might be using the spot blight program with an ulterior motive in mind.
“I think that some of the properties (taken under spot blight) may be less related to health and safety and more related to tax bases and higher revenue,” he said during the session.
Dodson took umbrage with that suggestion, and said that the express purpose of the program is to turn dilapidated properties into productive and beautiful ones.
“To say that we want to increase tax revenues (using the program), it’s an absurdity,” he said.
McCann said that increased property values are simply a byproduct of the program’s main goal, which is to eliminate blight.
Dodson also pointed out that blight isn’t just a problem in the inner cities. The housing authority has initiated eminent domain proceedings in the Richland Hills and Fort Hill neighborhoods and on Link Road, to name a few.
“This could happen in any older neighborhood,” he said.
The city’s spot blight initiative also has been a tool to create new low-income housing.
Lynchburg Neighborhood Development Foundation has restored several properties acquired by spot blight, turning them into apartments for low-income residents.
“It’s been very helpful,” said Executive Director Laura Dupuy.
She said that under the new legislation, her organization would only receive structures that could not be salvaged.
“I don’t need those kinds of properties,” she said.
This year’s legislation was a reaction, or some say an overreaction, to the 5-4 Kelo v. New London decision.
It held that the town of New London, Conn., could seize private homes that were not blighted and turn it over to Pfizer, which planned to use it as part of larger redevelopment plan.
“The Kelo case was about Connecticut law,” McCann said. “The Connecticut law is not the Virginia law.”
He means that the divided Court decided to defer to individual state’s rights to enact laws.
Connecticut lawmakers decided it was appropriate to use eminent domain to further economic development efforts. But, Erwin said, the same has never been true in Virginia.
The state’s Constitution says nothing about taking property for economic development, he said.
While it’s certainly an emotional issue, Erwin said he’s never seen even one Virginia case that has approached the situation in New London.
But lawmakers this session said that Virginia property owners need clear protections against an overreaching government.
The argument is often condensed into one about the protection of private property rights.
“Blight was never meant to mean simply ugly,” Cline said on the session’s closing day. “Failure to paint is not a reason to take away an individual’s property rights.”
Erwin said he agreed with that statement. But truly blighted properties have an adverse impact on neighboring properties, and even entire neighborhoods.
“What about property owner responsibility?” he said. “Why do you want to protect the rights of one individual and impose on the rights of other properties?”
He said most average citizens would say that local governments should have the power to correct the problem and get a dilapidated property in the hands of a responsible person.
McCann said that “a good many” spot blight cases come from neighbors themselves.
Property owners who live near deteriorating homes have suffered a property value decrease and, in extreme cases, been unable to sell their homes.
“They have property rights, too,” he said.
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