Public Power, Private Gain: Utah

Overview

Utah has done fairly well in avoiding the use of eminent domain for private parties. Its municipal leaders actually seem to care about whether their actions will require condemning their constituents’ property. At least four projects were rejected by cities specifically because they could involve the use of eminent domain to take people’s property for private commercial or residential development. The possibility of eminent domain brought owners out in droves to object, and government officials listened. Although Salt Lake City approved numerous redevelopment projects and designations of areas as blighted, there are no reports of condemnations for later private development. Indeed, only one city, Riverton, reported any significant threat of condemnation for private use.

 

Private Use Condemnations

Ogden

Two different projects that might have condemned homes for private use generated significant public opposition. In early 2000, the Ogden City Council declared a portion of the city blighted, but the decision brought 130 people to the City Council meeting to complain about the possible use of eminent domain to take their homes and a church.644 News stories do not report any further developments. Then, in 2002, there were plans for a project that would have included residential and commercial development along the Ogden River. However, the City Council voted it down, primarily because it would require the condemnation of 150 homes. The residents of the area were overwhelmingly against the project. Several elderly homeowners were not impressed by the proposal to remove them from their houses and put them into low-income apartments after completion of the project.645 Other Ogden citizens were enthusiastic about the plan and angry that it had been scuttled. But, as one of the Council members explained, “I don’t know anybody speaking in favor [of the project] whose homes would be taken through eminent domain.”646   

Riverton

Riverton’s redevelopment agency did not have the power of eminent domain until 1999, when the agency requested authorization to assemble land for a redevelopment project. Part of the project was to widen a road, but the other part was for a shopping center. When it first requested the eminent domain power, the City’s planning director explained that the City Council had taken a position never to use eminent domain to condemn homes, but it could condemn other property.647 The City apparently granted the power and then authorized eminent domain initially for seven properties with another group scheduled soon (including three operating businesses).648 A few weeks later, three property owners had refused to sell, although it appears their primary objection was compensation. Although most homeowners in the second group were willing to move, several did not. Eight months before, the planning director said there would be no eminent domain against homes. In March 2001, he was hoping not to have to condemn homes.649 Things sure change quickly once an agency has the power of eminent domain.  

Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City has at least seven areas that have been designated as blighted and are thus subject to condemnation. Owners within the areas have expressed concern about the possibility of condemnation in the future for private redevelopment projects.650 However, news reports do not reveal whether eminent domain was exercised to acquire property for any of the projects.  

South Salt Lake City

The City Council of South Salt Lake City twice rejected redevelopment designations when residents and businesses in the area objected that they feared the use of eminent domain. The City originally proposed two separate redevelopment designations in the 3300 South area. One would predominantly cover businesses, and the other had mostly residences. City leaders hoped that residents and businesses would be enthusiastic about the financial incentives within redevelopment areas and the redevelopment of empty lots and decrepit buildings.651 Residents instead believed the blight designation would decrease the value of their homes and businesses and would discourage further development. Although the owners weren’t opposed to redevelopment projects that did not use eminent domain, they strongly opposed a project that gave eminent domain power to the City. Owners sent letters and appeared at council meetings to voice their objections. Bowing to the will of their constituents, the City Council voted against both projects.652   

*These numbers were compiled from news sources. Many cases go unreported, and news reports often do not specify the number of properties against which condemnations were filed or threatened.

†Utah State Courts caseload summaries, accessible online at http://courtlink.utcourts.gov/stats/index.htm (includes condemnations for traditional public uses).

644 Don Baker, “Ogden Steps Toward Redevelopment,” The Deseret News, Feb. 9, 2000, at B2.

645 Kristen Moulton, “Torrent of Opposition Hits the Ogden River Project,” The Salt Lake Tribune, March 25, 2000, at B1.

646 Kristen Moulton, “Ogden Council Blistered Over Decision to Kill Parkway Project,” The Salt Lake Tribune, March 6, 2002, at C2.

647 Jim Urquhart, “Riverton RDA Seeking Power of Eminent Domain to Deal with Blight,” The Enterprise (Salt Lake City, UT) July 19, 1999, at 5.

648 “Salt Lake County Dateline Briefs,” The Deseret News, March 9, 2001, at B2.

649 John Keahey, “Riverton Gearing up for Retail Development,” The Salt Lake Tribune, March 27, 2001, at B2.

650 Rebecca Walsh, “Blight Survey Finds Plenty Wrong with Salt Lake’s Gateway,” The Salt Lake Tribune, Apr. 17, 1998, at D1; Rebecca Walsh, “S.L. City Council Declares Northern Gateway Blighted,” The Salt Lake Tribune, Aug. 14, 1998, at C3.

651 Josh Loftin, “3300 S. Projects Run into Hurdles,” The Deseret News, Dec. 4, 2000, at B1.

652 Josh Loftin, “Retailers Cheer Vote Against RDA in South S.L.,” The Deseret News, Apr. 15, 2001, at B3; John Keahey, “S. Salt Lake Redevelopment Project Dies,” The Salt Lake Tribune, April 11, 2001, at D2.