The words eminent domain can stir the passions of many over property rights, even if the owners aren’t directly affected by eminent domain.
If the property owner is directly involved, the battle can be arduous, intense and delicate on the rare occasion when eminent domain is used for economic development to help expand the property tax base.
A prime example now is the current situation with Joy Ford, owner of Country International Records, at the Music Row Roundabout.
She continues to dance with the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency over its intent to take her property through eminent domain so Houston-based Lionstone can do a mixed-use development.
It is a “threat” she’s been dealing with for years, starting with a developer previous to Lionstone. Her son Carroll Ford said the effort to buy his mother’s property started with bullying, with any offer being immediately followed by, “We can just take your property.”
That has had her back up ever since. A little over a week ago, Ford was still ready to take the issue to court and battle, her son said. There’s been a shift, however, that could mean an amicable end.
“It’s looking to be smoother climate,” Ford said. “I’d be encouraged that something positive is going to happen.”
What helped is that Joy Ford learned she has the option of redeveloping the squat cinderblock building herself and having it conform with what Lionstone has planned.
“That seems the most promising for Nashville and Joy,” her son said.
That will be an option weighed against fighting condemnation in court and potentially losing since the courts have tended to favor the government’s ability to take property for economic development purposes.
Three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court sent shockwaves throughout the country by siding with New London, Conn., in its ability to take property for economic development purposes.
Many thought the court had suddenly given municipalities a new power when in fact it simply reaffirmed what had been in place for 50 years.
Typically, eminent domain is used for roads and sewers and other public infrastructure. But at some point economic purposes took a broader definition and the U.S. Supreme Court gave the green light.
Still, politicians everywhere, including Tennessee, scrambled to limit eminent domain though legislation. Tennessee tweaked the law here some but didn’t make a wholesale change.
The law here is considered quite conservative and eminent domain is rarely used for economic development. Often times, it’s the last resort if the city can’t negotiate deal successfully with the property owner.
Developers, attorneys and government officials have said that Nashville has been extraordinarily conservative in using the eminent domain. It was used in building LP Field and the Sommet Center.
Eminent domain can be used only in defined redevelopment districts and generally properties have to be deemed blighted.
“It’s clearly a last resort and not something you really like to do,” said Richard Warren, the Nashville attorney representing Lionstone.
Often times, the legal battle isn’t over property rights but property value and what a city would pay for it.
For Joy Ford, it isn’t about the money. It’s about principle.
Her son Carroll said had his mother been approached initially years ago in a more cooperative — and not a threatening — way, her view of the situation may have been different.