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Ruling a blow to city's 'quick take' condemnation practice

Maryland’s top court on Thursday blocked Baltimore City from using “quick-take” condemnation to seize the Magnet Bar on North Charles Street, upholding an earlier decision by the city circuit court.

The Court of Appeals said the city failed to prove an “immediate need” to confiscate the bar at 1924 N. Charles St., which is owned by George Valsamaki.

The ruling could have a drastic impact on development in Baltimore City, which has often relied on the quick-take process to acquire properties for neighborhood revitalization. Quick-take allows governments to take immediate possession of a property rather than wade through a lengthier court process.

“I think the city over the years fell into the habit of doing quick-take for everything, and I think this [decision] means that they cannot continue that.” said John C. Murphy, the attorney who represented Valsamaki in the case.

The court’s ruling does not stop Baltimore City from using eminent domain to seize the Magnet Bar or any other property. Rather, the decision prevents it from using quick-take to condemn properties without demonstrating a pressing need or a specific redevelopment plan.

“Quick-take condemnation should only be conducted when the need for the possession of the property is immediate … and in the public interest,” the opinion, written by Judge Dale R. Cathell, said.

The ruling gives teeth to a May circuit court decision saying the city failed to prove the need for a quick-take of the Magnet Bar. The bar was one about 20 properties in Baltimore’s Charles North neighborhood that the city was amassing to market to developers.

On behalf of Valsamaki, Murphy questioned whether the city had the right to condemn the properties without the city having received development proposals. Baltimore Development Corp. President M.J. “Jay” Brodie argued during the circuit court hearing that an urban renewal plan, sanctioned by the City Council, allowed a quick-take of properties in Charles North.

But the circuit court disagreed, an opinion backed up by the Court of Appeals.

“While the existence of a general urban renewal plan might, under some circumstances, justify the use of regular condemnation, it, alone … does not suffice to provide the immediacy that needs to exist to justify quick-take condemnation with its lesser procedural due process standards,” Cathell wrote.

Unlike standard eminent domain procedures, “the opportunities to challenge a condemnation are shortened and truncated when quick-take condemnation is used as opposed to regular condemnation.”

Cathell used strong language in his opinion, warning the city against abusing the “extraordinary power” of eminent domain.

“It was not conferred for the purpose of allowing a condemning authority to run roughshod over the owners of private property,” he wrote.

The opinion also warned lower courts to remain vigilant during quick-take cases.

It is important to “carefully scrutinize the use of this quick-take procedure to ensure that its use, in the first place, is supported by the immediacy, not of the process, but of the alleged public need,” the opinion said.

City Solicitor George Nilson worries the top court’s decision could slow development in Baltimore.

“Quick-take proceedings are critically important,” he said. “If you don’t do quick-take, you’re not likely to get very many significant proposals from developers.”

But the city will abide by the ruling.

“It’s going to make us be more thoughtful and to do the process a little differently,” Nilson said.

Dana Berliner, an attorney with Virginia-based Institute for Justice, a watchdog group for eminent domain abuse, considers the court decision a victory for property rights.

“The Maryland Court of Appeals used a very common-sense approach to eminent domain,” Berliner said. “The court says, ‘If you don’t need that property right now, you shouldn’t take it right now.’”