By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer
NORWOOD - A new group of residents has mobilized against developers of the proposed $125 million Rookwood Exchange commercial project, capturing national attention, while some of their neighbors succumb to increasing pressures to sell.
Citizens Against Eminent Domain Abuse has about 30 members who promise to stand by one another's side while Anderson Real Estate and Miller-Valentine Group keep offering big money for several parcels just north of the highly successful Rookwood Commons.Their concern is that, on Tuesday, City Council members will agree to conduct an "urban renewal study." Developers would finance the study, which would aim to prove that the neighborhood is blighted.
The designation as a blighted area would be the first step needed for developers to convince the city to use its eminent domain powers to force the remaining owners to sell.
Offers from developers have reached as high as 40 percent above the homes' appraised values, including some agreeing to sell for more than $200,000.
Rookwood Exchange would include offices, apartments, condos, upscale shops and restaurants on a triangular piece of property bounded by Interstate 71, and Edmondson and Edwards roads.
Council members agree that Rookwood Exchange and its projected $3.5 million in annual earnings tax revenues could help solve the city's constant budget problems. But there could be legal challenges to using the eminent domain approach.
"They can't use urban renewal as a subterfuge. Recent cases have said you can't just call ordinary residential areas blighted," said lawyer Dana Berliner of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, which fights eminent domain abuse across the country and has been in contact with residents.
"There's increasing skepticism on the part of the courts when government is blatantly taking property from one person to give it to somebody else," said Ms. Berliner, who helped an elderly woman keep her home when Donald Trump wanted to raze it for a casino parking lot.
The pursuit of eminent domain "should not be used to do a favor for a private developer or as a bargaining chip for negotiating," she said.
New group leaders - as well as some council members - take offense to the possible blight designation. They call the study a ploy to pressure property owners.
"If this block is blighted, then 75 percent of Norwood is blighted," said Nick Motz, a new group leader who owns a business, Wilker Design, at Edwards and Edmondson roads. "There are people that want to sell their property. That's fine. But those who don't shouldn't be forced to hand it over to another private person."
At least 30 of the 79 home and business owners have signed purchase contracts, but time is running out. Developers wanted to have purchase agreements from all residents by the end of this year. The homes have appraised values of $130,000 to $175,000.Some council members question the need for an urban renewal study since the city has strict definitions of blight that aren't evident in the targeted neighborhood.
"Most of the houses there are in good shape. There's not a real crime problem over there. There's not a pocket of poverty. If Atlantic (one of the targeted streets) is blighted, then half the county is," Councilman Keith Moore said. "They're trying to put pressure on them to sell. There's always the option of paying people what they want.
"Quite honestly, I don't have the intention of voting for something that's not going to be legal," Mr. Moore said.
But developers defend the need for a study.
"This request for an urban renewal study is not a strategy to put pressure on home owners who we don't have under contract right now," said Brian Copfer of Miller-Valentine. "Our main intent is just to explore options for how eminent domain could be used by the City of Norwood in the future."
Meanwhile, Walter Sims, who has lived in the 2700 block of Edmondson Road for three decades, recently agreed to sell his home for more than $210,000.
"I'm protecting myself," said Mr. Sims.
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