New Study Finds Washington Needs Eminent Domain Reform

Seattle—If you own a home, a farm, a small business or a piece of land in the state of Washington, you should be disturbed to learn the results of a new study released by the Washington Policy Center.

The report, “The Use and Abuse of Washington’s Community Renewal Law,” concludes that, because of Washington’s Community Renewal Law (CRL), home and small-business owners of the Evergreen State are not protected from eminent domain abuse—local government officials can take anyone’s property and sell it to a developer for private gain.

The CRL is a law that allows local governments to label any private property “blighted” and take it for private redevelopment.  Under the CRL, the definition of blight is so broad that every single home or business in Washington can be threatened with condemnation, even if the property poses no threat to public health or safety. Since 2000, local governments in Washington have applied, or attempted to apply, the CRL to areas containing more than 71,000 Washington residents.  Of these, the homes, businesses and properties of more than 48,000 Washingtonians were threatened by projects in which private property would be taken through eminent domain for economic redevelopment purposes.

The study, authored by Institute for Justice Washington Chapter (IJ-WA) Staff Attorney Jeanette M. Petersen, also found that local government officials applied, or attempted to apply, the CRL to areas with more ethnic or racial minorities, and to residents who have completed less education, live on significantly less income or live at or below the federal poverty line. Read the full report here.

Some local governments have used the CRL for genuine improvement of the community.  The City of Everett used the CRL to remove and contain contaminated soil from the site of a former smelting plant and in turn redeveloped the land with 90 new homes. The City of Vancouver is another example of a municipality that properly used the CRL to improve an area without resorting to eminent domain. In both cases local officials worked with land owners voluntarily, without threatening to take their property by force.

But too often, use of Washington’s CRL came with the real possibility of the abuse of individual rights.

According to Petersen, “When most people think of blighted areas, they think of neighborhoods afflicted with objective, concrete problems so serious that the property itself harms the safety or health of the surrounding community, such as properties that are dangerously dilapidated, unsanitary, unsafe, vermin-infested or hazardous. However, Washington’s CRL does not limit the definition of ‘blighted areas’ only to these types of problems—it includes amorphous standards such as diversity of ownership (meaning each individual in a neighborhood owns their home or business), ‘inappropriate’ use of the property, ‘faulty platting,’ and other factors that could apply to any property the government targets. Indeed, the definition of ‘blighted area’ used in the law is so broad that nearly every neighborhood in Washington could be designated a blighted area.” Even Bill Gates’ home could be labeled “blighted” if Medina city officials decided they wanted to take it.

Petersen continued, “When the government designates an area as blighted, it has the authority to condemn all the properties in that area—even homes that do not possess a single one of the broad characteristics of blight—and transfer that property to private entities. Thus, one blighted house in an otherwise well-maintained, successful neighborhood can bring a blight designation upon all the homeowners in that neighborhood.”

The study examined whether eminent domain reform is necessary in Washington and the results demonstrate that many Washington cities, including the cities of Seattle and Renton, have used or attempted to use the CRL for economic redevelopment against the wishes of the property owners. Both the Washington Policy Center’s Vice President for Research, Paul Guppy, and IJ-WA’s executive director, Bill Maurer, were members of Attorney General Rob McKenna’s Eminent Domain Task Force, which recently concluded its investigation into the need to reform Washington’s eminent domain laws. The final report of the Task Force, which will be released this winter, is expected to suggest important reforms to Washington’s eminent domain laws, including significant reform of the CRL.

Guppy said, “Sometimes officials’ use of eminent domain power doesn’t work because homeowners fight back and win, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. For Washington property owners, the Community Renewal Law is like a loaded weapon: you never know when some mayor or city council member might decide to point it at you.”

Petersen concluded, “Because of the demonstrated capacity for abuse of Washington’s CRL, true protection for Washington residents and business owners can only come if the CRL is amended to permit eminent domain only to address a specific parcel of property creating a serious health or safety risk to the surrounding neighborhood.”