by Max Brantley
The Coalition of Greater Little Rock Neighborhoods has endorsed Little Rock Director Kenneth Richardson's proposed ordinance to prohibit spending of city tax money on court-ordered seizure of private homes to build the office building envisioned by the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce as a lure for private technology companies.
Richardson's ordinance competes tonight with Director Dean Kumpuris' resolution urging the Little Rock Technology Park Authority, which is an independent agency effectively controlled by the Chamber of Commerce, to spend six months considering other non-residential alternative sites, but preserving use of eminent domain as a final option.
Kumpuris' resolution has no legal force. Richardson's ordinance has meaning, because the Tech Park is virtually penniless without city tax money. It can't condemn private property without money.
If homes are to be taken, it should be a fair negotiation in which homeowners don't face a threat of being evicted at low market prices from long-time homes impossible to replace. And renters should have some consideration, too. It can be done without condemnation. The library acquired its property for the new children's branch along I-630 almost entirely through negotiation. City officials are now huffing that Bobby Roberts, too, used condemnation. But here are the facts on that from Roberts:
There was one abandoned house that we condemned. We did that because we could not find the owner and the Florida bank that held the paper had collapsed during the banking crisis. Therefore, we had to go to condemnation. In that case the court instructed us to place the fair market value of the property in escrow to give the owner and/or bank a chance to make a claim. Neither ever appeared so the escrow reverted to us. I think the escrow was around $13,000.
An unoccupied derelict house without an owner, condemned by a public library for a purely public use, is not an occupied private home forceably taken by a quasi-public agency to house a private business.
UPDATE: I've learned that Kumpuris' resolution is going to be upgraded to an ordinance tonight and prohibit spending of city money on land acquisition for six months while a citywide site search is performed. It's meaningless in terms of expenditures. No land was likely to be bought in six months anyway. But it does put some pressure on the Tech Park cheerleaders to do a meaningful search for alternatives. Will they? I'll believe it when I see it. Will the City Board hear unhappy residents if the search comes back to that same poor neighborhood that Dickson Flake has wanted all along? City officials already are making assurances that people facing condemnation will be paid replacement value and relocation expenses, as was done in airport acquistions. They think their hold on the money gives them leverage over the Chamber of Commerce Medicine Show. That would be a first.
The Coalition's letter, from president Kathy Wells:
Please approve tonight’s proposal to ban use of city funds for eminent-domain acquisition of residences for the Central Arkansas Technology Park, and assure up to 300 families keep their homes. The city interest in promoting new enterprise should not come at the cost of such a sacrifice.
In 1990, when community leaders formed this Coalition of Greater Little Rock Neighborhoods, we organized around Five Points, and one of our guiding principles was to promote rehabilitation, rather than demolition of homes.
All current prospects for this new Technology Park would destroy homes by the hundreds. At the same time, our city has too much vacant commercial property awaiting redevelopment, and there is where city leaders ought to direct their spending on this Park facility.
That rule about locating five minutes from UAMS hospital and medical school dormitories was formed to take advantage of the labor force in the school enrollment. A UAMS speaker told Coalition members last year that officials expected to hire medical students to work the laboratories, so they intended to keep the commute to and from work short. That convenience is not worth this much destruction and loss of neighborhoods.
Pass Dir. Richardson’s ordinance, and keep these families in their homes - and commercial development in its proper place.