Blight Makes Right:
Unjustified Blight Determinations Pave the Way for Condemnation
The Cote Brilliant situation in Newport illustrates a phenomenon that is happening all over the country. Local government first decides to give other people’s property to a private developer and then proceeds to designate the area as blighted in order to justify taking the property. With the outcome predetermined, cities will find a way to label anything blighted, using preposterous justifications for their designation. In Kentucky, a neighborhood with $200,000 homes is blighted. Englewood, New Jersey, termed an industrial park blighted that had one unoccupied building out of 37 and generated $1.2 million per year in property taxes. Richfield, Minnesota, labeled buildings blighted that did not have insulation that met Minnesota’s rules for energy-efficient construction of new buildings. Lakewood, Ohio, calls homes blighted that do not have two-car attached garages. And various California cities have tried to label neighborhoods blighted for peeling paint and uncut lawns.
Most blight statutes provide a list of vague criteria that can establish blight. Pennsylvania’s blight statute is typical. Areas are blighted if they have “unsafe, unsanitary, inadequate or over-crowded” dwellings, and certainly unsanitary and unsafe buildings sound like a problem. But Pennsylvania also calls areas blighted that have “inadequate planning,” “excessive land coverage by buildings,” “lack of adequate air and light,” “defective design and arrangement of buildings,” or “economically or socially undesirable land uses.”1 Such broad definitions can encompass any area. An area can be inadequately planned if some current city planner wants to plan it differently. A use can be called economically undesirable if another one would generate more taxes. Pittsburgh found the Pittsburgh Wool Company blighted because the building covered too much of the land on the lot, and it found that the Fifth and Forbes neighborhood lacked sufficient air and light because it was full of the old-style row houses so common in the Eastern half of the United States. With definitions like that, cities can claim almost any home or business is blighted. Then, once an area has been labeled blighted, no matter how petty the justification, it magically transmogrifies into the most derelict area imaginable. With a blight designation any action—razing it to the ground, giving it to a private developer—is presumed legally to be for the public purpose of eliminating this terrible public nuisance.
Although city officials will usually tell citizens that blight designations are useful for funding and tax abatement, in fact a blight designation places all properties in the area at the mercy of both bureaucrats and developers. Residents should therefore view any proposed blight designation as the first move in a coming land-grab.
1 35 Penn. Stat. § 1702 (2002).
Sources: All of these situations are described in this report under their respective cities.