Housing Complex

Eminent Domain’s A Bitch When You Don’t Use It Well

My column this week looks at the potential future for Skyland Shopping Center, where the District is about to wrap up its six-year-long process of acquiring land through the power of eminent domain. Other than the doubtful feasibility of the planned project, there's another major takeaway: Whatever you think about the government's ability to unilaterally take someone's land, it becomes a nightmare when used haphazardly.

Take the case of 72-year-old Duk Hea Oh, who has owned a beauty shop on Alabama Avenue SE, packed to the rafters with wigs and bangles, since 1990. When the National Capital Revitalization Corporation (NCRC) initially moved to take her land back in 2005, she says they offered $540,000. Subsequently, the District negotiated settlements for similar shops on either side of her at astronomical prices: $624,000, $700,000, and $828,000.

As her lawsuit dragged on, and NCRC was dissolved, and a jury upheld an award of $160,000, less $79,000 in rent that Oh has refused to pay since the District took her property 2005. That may be closer to the fair market value, but having initially been given an unrealistic expectation initially, Oh has fought the award for six years, and still has no plans to leave, despite a final court ruling against her.

“If they want to take it, take it. But American government, they don’t know how much we work hard,” Oh said, perched behind her cash register. “They give me a little money, and say ‘you go out.’ I have to retire, but I cannot retire now.”

Or look at Peter DeSilva, who bought a piece of Skyland when he got out of the Navy in the 1960s, and operated a liquor store there for eight years before turning over the business to his employees. In 2005, NCRC determined his property was worth $600,000. DeSilva sued for more, but a second appraisal by the District put the value at less than half that. The liquor store closed down years ago, but they kept fighting over how much DeSilva should get; the appeals court ruled in the District's favor earlier this year.

"We really got screwed out of at least $300,000," DeSilva told me.

We don't need to consider Oh and DeSilva as terribly wronged martyrs; their properties probably aren't worth as much as they say they are. But still, they might have given up earlier and saved everyone time and effort if the District had made a reasonable determination and stuck with it.

Just last week, another appeals court decision illustrated even more egregious mishandling of eminent domain. Back in 2005, the District was trying to use that authority for another purpose: Taking a piece of land on South Capitol Street SE needed for an approach to the new South Capitol Street Bridge. For the next five years, the case details, the District dithered about whether or not it needed the parcel, and if so, how much it was worth—even firing appraisers as they were about decide the property was worth more than the city wanted to pay. In 2009, owner Potomac Development Corporation sued the District for $34 million, alleging that the eminent domain limbo had prevented them from developing or profitably leasing the land.

Ultimately, the judge also decided in favor of the District. But regardless of the technical question of whether Potomac deserves millions of dollars in compensation for the government's indecision, it's clearly an abuse of state power that made a private citizen's life difficult for no public good.

The government's ability to take private land is a serious thing, and becomes a mess when not used surgically and decisively. The District ought not to make it more of a burden on private landowners than it already is.

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