Sunday, May 07, 2006

The 1,500-foot question

Plan brews to cut Metro power

Wong looks to reduce 1,500-foot allowance for eminent domain

May 7, 2006

By Jenna Colley
Houston Business Journal
Copyright 2006

A movement is afoot to curtail the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County's broad power of eminent domain.

State Rep. Martha Wong (R-Houston) says her staff is reviewing the transit agency's condemnation authority and could propose limiting legislation in the near future.

Wrangling over a light rail segment along a stretch of Richmond Avenue in Wong's district has raised questions about a 1978 decision by the Texas Legislature that gives Metro the power to condemn property within 1,500 feet -- about the length of five football fields -- of a transit station.

The allowed range is far too excessive for Wong, who looks to adjust the distance allowed in the enabling legislation passed almost 40 years ago.

Says Wong: "They could buy up the Galleria basically if they wanted to do that. They could claim eminent domain there."

Her residential and retail constituents in the Richmond corridor also have put eminent domain center stage as an issue in their ongoing battle to untrack Metro's plans.

Ted Richardson, a retired architect who lives near a projected rail path, wants Metro officials to reaffirm a commitment made by the agency more than 20 years ago.

Richardson cites a resolution approved by the Metro board in 1983, when members voted that eminent domain should be used within the 1,500-foot parameter only on projects considered critical to transit plans.

A recent change in Metro real estate strategy shows how the agency that first put light rail on Main Street could be taking a different direction in the next phase under current chairman and local developer David Wolff.

The transit agency hired veteran real estate consultant Todd Mason in 2004 for the purpose of putting together possible real estate deals.

Since then, Metro has partnered on several real estate transactions, including a mixed-use project in the Texas Medical Center and a retail development on U.S. Highway 290.

Critics like Richardson would contend that such projects are not crucial to transit plans and go against the 1983 resolution.

Others think the quest for real estate deals increases the odds that Metro might decide to play the condemnation card up to the 1,500-foot limit.

Houston Property Rights Association President Barry Klein refers to a quote by President Teddy Roosevelt: "Walk softly but carry a big stick."

Klein says eminent domain, although rarely used, is Metro's big stick.

Metro spokesman George Smalley won't speculate about Metro's land needs until a route is determined for the next segment, but offers assurances that condemnation powers will be used only if absolutely necessary.

Explains Smalley: "We are better off doing everything possible to minimize disruption to businesses. When it comes to land acquisition, it's to our advantage to acquire as little as possible. The more we purchase, the more our project costs. The more it costs, the harder it is to win federal funding."

Power to scare

State Rep. Wong supports an alternative route for light rail along less developed Westpark, where eminent domain would likely have less of an impact compared to the heavily populated Richmond corridor.

The debate has elevated her concerns over Metro's ability to eliminate large portions of neighborhoods by exercising eminent domain as far as 1,500 feet.

Says Wong: "It seems to me that they want a lot of power. If the public really knew, there would be an uproar -- not just on Richmond but everywhere."

Claims by Metro officials that eminent domain will be used sparingly aren't enough for Wong.

"Even if they say they are not going to do it, they could. And that's what scares us," she says.

U.S. Congressman John Culberson (R-Houston) is closely monitoring the Westpark versus Richmond debate.

Culberson, who has a large say in federal funding, is on the record in opposing unrestricted use of eminent domain.

The local conservative voted in favor of a bill last year to limit the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Kelo v. City of New London allowing governments to seize private property for economic development.

But Culberson won't get involved in a political dispute over Metro's condemnation power in the Texas Legislature, according to Nick Swyka, director of the Congressman's Houston office.

Says Swyka: "Congressman Culberson has no intention of doing that, and believes that's not the federal government's role. He is sticking to the federal funding issue and wants to make sure that what Metro asks for has good support in the community."

The 1,500-foot question

Supporters among the residents and business owners along Richmond Avenue appear few and far between.

Retired architect Richardson sticks to his contention that Metro should renew the 1983 commitment.

He points out a clause in the original resolution that reads: "The Board of Directors hereby expresses its intent against exercising the power of eminent domain to acquire existing residences or businesses within 1,500 feet of transit facilities other than those which otherwise would be required for transit purposes for the construction of station or terminal complexes associate with the development of the Stage 1 Regional Rail System."

No mention is made of future rail projects in the non-binding document, but Richardson says such a formal statement would be a show of good faith and could help avoid litigation if the transit agency decides on Richmond over Westpark.

Says Richardson: "Metro's got a real credibility problem with the public. Many people just don't trust them."

While the 1,500-foot issue takes on a more prominent role in the current debate over where rail will go next, Metro's Smalley makes it clear that the transit agency will continue to pursue real estate ventures.

In fact, Smalley argues that the deals already done should be characterized as smart rather than aggressive.

Says Smalley: "If we can take a piece of property and do something that helps boosts our ridership and therefore make Metro more cost-effective, and take steps to add a new revenue stream that also helps manage Metro's costs, that is a pretty smart move in my book."

© 2006 American City Business Journals