It is an unfortunate fact that Eminent Domain can be abused by towns and cities (and even federally) to ruin historic preservation efforts by tearing down whole blocks of historic buildings in the name of “progress” and “the greater good”. For anyone who might not know what Eminent Domain is, here is a handy definition for you from expertlaw.com: “Eminent domain refers to the power possessed by the state over all property within the state, specifically its power to appropriate property for a public use. In some jurisdictions, the state delegates eminent domain power to certain public and private companies, typically utilities, such that they can bring eminent domain actions to run telephone, power, water, or gas lines. In most countries, including the United States under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, the owner of any appropriated land is entitled to reasonable compensation, usually defined as the fair market value of the property. Proceedings to take land under eminent domain are typically referred to as “condemnation” proceedings.”
Now, to the story at hand. A while ago, a reader named Jerome asked me to write a blog post about his hometown of East Wheeling, West Virginia, and the struggle several residents were having. The town wanted to demolish homes in order to build a sports complex, but these homes were historic, listed in the National Register as part of a historic district, and some are even in the town’s walking tour. At first, I wasn’t sure whether or not I should get into a local issue that was a bit far from me, geographically, but when I though about it I figured that as a professional Preservationist, if I could help in any way, I had better do it…. think of it as the Hippocratic oath for buildings…. the “histocratic” oath if you will. “I will remember that I remain a member of society with special obligations to all buildings”.
So, after I decided to tackle this, Jerome and I emailed back and forth and I got a bit of history from him. Here it is in his own words. “The story regarding these tactics to take property is frightening. An unnamed not-for-profit tried to buy buildings in the neighborhood in 2009 and 2010. When no owners expressed interest, the City began “threatening” owners with Eminent Domain. Those owners that caved, their property was taken by a third party. Those who did not settle, were filed upon with legal Eminent Domain which my neighbors and I are fighting. The rumor is the nearby Catholic High School wants to build a practice football field where the homes are.”
Now, I’ve posted some photos of the homes included in the town walking tour below (which look like they could have been taken by one of the users on the forum mentioned later), and admittedly, some could use a little TLC. There is a lot of talk around about how the homes aren’t worth saving because of their condition, but it seems to me that if these people are willing to fight to keep their homes, then they are worth saving. Not to mention that I see “good bones” in these photos and they just need a little elbow grease before they can shine again. For anyone out there who thinks that these building should be torn down because they’re in need of some work, (like one comment I found on a forum that states: “I’d rather see these buildings knocked down rather than let them continue to fall apart because lets face it, given the economics of the area, the odds of someone/ something buying these structures and breathing new life into them are next to nothing.”), I have but one thing to say. Shame on you! No, there might not be much money in the community, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try! There are all kinds of options to pursue, like establishing a revolving fund to buy vacant houses, fix them up and then sell them to low-income families at an affordable price, or historic rehabilitation tax credits or CDBG (Community Development Block Grant for those not in on the lingo) funds. Just because a goal looks like will be an uphill battle doesn’t mean the view from the top wasn’t worth the climb!
Okay so… what is the point of sharing this with you fine readers? Simple: to get the word out. Maybe you can help Jerome and the other residents of 15th Street fighting for their homes, or maybe you have a similar situation in your town. The important thing is that Preservation exists because people care about their communities, places where they live and work, where they grew up and made memories and a large part of those memories is the environment that they took place in. All it takes to save these places are a few people who care standing up and make themselves heard! So here’s to Jerome and East Wheeling’s fight to save these buildings. Maybe if enough people stand up to show how much they care for their homes and towns, and refuse to accept eminent domain as a viable solution, everyone can sit down together and talk, to create a plan that will meet everyone’s needs!
EDIT: I have come to find out that the photos were taken by Jonathon Denson and that he has them on his blog which you can find here.