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Up for Grabs: Potential for Abuse in Blight Condemnations

By Ashley Wofford

“Blight condemnations” might sound like a reasonable measure to ensure community members are safe and that property that is seriously dilapidated isn’t just left to rot. But there is a danger that government officials could abuse Arkansas’s overly broad definition of blight. Furthermore, the threat of eminent domain laws being used this way could actually make blight in Arkansas worse.

In my blog posts “How to Reform Eminent Domain Law,”  “Fair Market Value Compensation: Is This The Right Standard,” and “Blurring the Lines of Public Use: Pipeline Takings,” I give an overview of the first two issues Ilya Somin addresses in his new ACRE policy brief “Ripe for Reform: Eminent Domain Law in Arkansas.”

In this post, I will discuss the third and final area with potential for abuse: blight condemnations. In his brief Somin’s primary concern is that overly broad definitions of blight can include almost any property, which creates insecure property rights.

Arkansas’s current definition of what qualifies as blight comes from the Arkansas Community Redevelopment Financing Act which was passed in 2001 to “prevent, arrest and alleviate blight and decay in communities.” It allows the transfer of blighted property to private entities through the use of eminent domain under this definition: “blighted area includes any area which…substantially impairs or arrests the sound growth of a city, retards the provision of housing accommodations, or constitutes a social liability.” Since any property could be further developed, this does not act as a meaningful constraint on the state’s powers.  

Additionally, the fear that one’s property might be condemned could disincentivize investment and repairs in neighborhoods, therefore reinforcing blight. In the brief Somin states, “one key to the development of poor areas is the security of property rights, without which residents may be reluctant to form valuable community ties or invest and start businesses.”

The broad definition of blight in Arkansas “allows the use of eminent domain for what are essentially pure economic-development projects,” according to Somin. Arkansas legislators could respond by limiting blight condemnations to “areas that are severely dilapidated or pose a direct threat to public health.” Or Arkansas could also follow the lead of states like Florida and New Mexico that have abolished blight condemnations entirely.

This concludes my blog series. Keep an eye out for my upcoming policy review of eminent domain in Arkansas with co-author ACRE Scholar-In-Residence Dr. Zack Donohew. In his brief, Somin identified potentials for abuse of eminent domain. We’ll be examining whether any such abuse in Arkansas is actually happening in practice.