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The Nose

Ominous Omission

Posted 4/10/2002

The bulldozers are coming! The bulldozers are coming! Well, so feared a handful of neighborhood activists who attended the April 4 meeting of the Baltimore City Planning Commission. The fearful folks had come to get the skinny on City Council Bill 02-0701, a piece of Baltimore Development Corp.-hyped legislation designed to give the city greater power in acquiring property for industrial development. Specifically, the bill authorizes the city to use the dreaded "C" word--condemnation--as a means to snatch privately held property it wants to see industrially redeveloped.Larisa Salamacha, BDC's director of economic development, used a polished PowerPoint presentation to outline the quasi-public agency's chronic need for 0701. The city, she said, has some "2,500 acres of underutilized former industrial sites," much of it owned by multinational corporations with zero interest in developing the properties. Thousands of jobs and thousands in tax revenues hang in the balance. There are industrial clients ready to get busy in Baltimore, Salamacha maintained, but only if there is some way to assemble development parcels for them out of all that fallow, mothballed, and privately held land. No residential property would be condemned via this legislation, she asserted--none.

That last notion is what had prompted numerous rank-and-file citizens groups to scope out the hearing. (The city had mailed copies of the bill to neighborhood organizations seeking comment.) A woman from Rosemont in West Baltimore was confused--and fearful--of a bill she said was "written for lawyers and not for people like me." The word "condemnation" she understood--the former Richmond, Va., resident said she'd lost her house there to city-driven industrial expansion. Another wary citizen stressed the bill's lack of definitions and "weak language." Salamacha responded by repeating that the bill was only concerned with industrial tracts. But it took Ward Eisinger, president of the Remington Neighborhood Alliance, to note a crucial rhetoric/reality gap: While Salamacha was protesting that residential property was beyond the bill's reach, the legislation itself contained no such prohibitions. "I don't see the language to that effect in the bill," Eisinger said, shaking his head.

Sure enough, after a careful read, no one else in the room could see the residential exemption in the three-page bill either--because it wasn't there. Council Bill 02-0701 was based on--and enabled by--a state bill passed by the General Assembly last year, which clearly states that residential property "may not be acquired by condemnation for industrial growth." Somehow, this crucial wordage didn't make it into the city proposal. The Planning Commission ultimately voted to recommend that the council OK the bill, with an amendment adding the state bill's residential exemption word for word. The neighborhood folks were satisfied; BDC was satisfied. And the Nose was satisfied that some eagle-eyed citizens had saved the day.

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