How to get our city to condemn an empty building

by Gay Ingram
(Colville, WA, USA)

Visitor Question: I live in a very rural town in North Eastern Washington State. There is nothing for the children (or adults) to do. We have found the perfect building/site for a roller skating rink.

It is an abandoned market that can not be used as is. It needs to be demolished. The owner lives in Alabama, and has not been here in almost eight years.

Can we get the city to condemn it somehow and/or use eminent domain for the city to help us get the rink. We are a non-profit and having a very hard time trying to raise money. Help!

Editors' Reply:

There really are two issues here--the empty building and the need for some healthy recreation.

Yes, your city definitely can use its condemnation power, also known as eminent domain, if it can show a public purpose for the "taking," as it is called in the legal system.

To make the condemnation (of the entire property) more sound in legal terms and to make it more politically feasible, you may want to think in terms of calling the project a community center instead of simply a skating rink.

We don't mean to imply that taking land for a public purpose that is recreational will be considered unconstitutional, but these days there are more and more people who are opposed to the use of eminent domain for almost anything, and it's just a good idea to make your public purpose as broad and non-controversial as possible.

We also talked among ourselves and think that the community center idea would be more helpful in terms of figuring out how to fundraise as well.

The more types of groups who might want to use the facility, the better for fundraising with businesses and individuals, obtaining grants, and the like. If the new building could have a little meeting room with small kitchen attached, it could accommodate gardeners, senior citizens, youth groups, church activities, and all manner of hobbies and interests. More people interested means more potential donors.

Perhaps if the project were positioned more broadly as a community center, the owner would become interested in a donation of the property or partial donation as a tax write-off. Depending on its value, that could make the current owner potentially tax-proof for a few years, which might be an attractive beneift.

This brings us to a point that you see consistently throughout our approach to community development: make sure you've tried direct conversation with the owner. Even if he's not around, he might be more willing to make a deal than you know. If he has relatives in your town, work with them first to see if you can make some allies that might be helpful.

Perhaps you were intending to ask only if the building and not the entire property could be condemned as an unsafe or unfit building (a different use of the word "condemned"). That's also a possibility, but only if you have a property maintenance code (by that name or another) that allows you to do so. In other words, there must be some standards that are being violated in order for the building to be condemned. It can't just look bad because it hasn't been painted and the weeds haven't been cut, for instance. Often there must be structural damage and significant parts of the building, such as roof, walls, and so forth, collapsing.

Be aware that either building condemnation or condemnation of the entire property for a public purpose can be time-consuming. Especially condemnation of the property through eminent domain usually results in the government paying top dollar because the citizens who determine the value of the land often are sympathetic with and generous to the property owner.

So make sure you have negotiated before you do anything else. Then think through whether you really want to work so hard for a skating rink (which might be popular now, but skating, bowling, and so forth go in and out of style), or would a more multi-purpose gathering space serve your community well?

True, most skating rinks will have a little snack bar, but that's not the same as a separate meeting room that might attract a larger share of community support.

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