Downtown property owners left the council chambers dissatisfied after the Pine Bluff City Council voted 5-3 to authorize the exercise of eminent domain to acquire property for the Delta Rhythm and Bayous Cultural District Project on Monday.
Voting against the resolution were council members Steven Mays and Steven Shaner while council members Glen Brown Sr., Lanette Frazier, Latisha Brunson, Bruce Lockett, and Lloyd Holcomb Jr. voted in favor. Glen Brown Jr. left early and his absence was counted as a no-vote.
According to the resolution the district encompasses an area bounded by State Street on the east, Third Avenue on the south, Pine Street to the west, and Second Avenue on the north. The properties in the district area needed to move forward with the project were denied for purchase during negotiations with the owners who felt the offer by the city was a lowball offer and demanded a fair market value price. Those property owners spoke against the resolution to utilize the eminent domain process during the council meeting.
Eminent domain is a power held by governments (federal, state and local) to take private property for public use, with just compensation provided to the owner. In simpler terms, it means the government can acquire a person’s land or property if they can demonstrate a legitimate public benefit for doing so, and they have to pay a fair price for it.
Jane Robinson, co-owner of the parking lot behind 209 South Main needed by the city, said eminent domain will discourage investors and other individuals looking to invest in Pine Bluff.
“No one wants to invest in property that the city might just decide one day they will own you and pay under market value for their property,” said Robinson.
Pine Bluff Community Development Director Larry Matthews said he was the designee for the project and in charge of the negotiation process who had an appraisal done.
“The three-page appraisal was based solely on prior property sold from 2019 and 2020 and the appraised value was listed as 3 dollars a square foot and was what we were originally offered,” said Robinson. “We met with the mayor, city attorney, cultural director and economic development and it was agreed that the property owners would get a fair market appraisal.”
Robinson said she and her husband, Will Jenkins, who also owns property downtown paid to have a fair market appraisal done. “The appraisal included a 118-page report and listed seven comparison properties that were sold between July 2019 through December 23.”
After the council meeting, Robinson said what was taken into consideration were current market conditions including new businesses and properties opened in the area like the library, aquatic center, Veteran’s Center, Coroner’s office, a clinic, Art Space on Main, Friendship School, Streetscape, property storefront improvements, businesses and restaurants. Additional considerations of planned improvements include the current construction of the Sixth Street food truck area, the housing project, and the hotel for the Convention Center, all of which she said increase the property value of the downtown area.
The fair market appraisal valued the property at $5.99 a square foot, according to Robinson. The city then made a second offer of $3.69 a square foot, which is the current offer.
“The Plaza Hotel was property purchased in the city’s best interest. It was negotiated with the owner for a fair market value price of 1.2 million dollars,” said Robinson. “That building is going to be demolished.”
The property owners felt $3 a square foot was not fair.
Jenkins discussed his and his wife’s investments in the downtown area and their frustration with the city’s use of eminent domain to acquire their parking lot.
“My wife and I moved here eight years ago to be part of the revitalization of your city and we invested heavily in the downtown area,” he said. “Each property that we purchased became a part of a vision that my wife had for the downtown area and this is the thanks that we get.”
Jenkins said using eminent domain to circumvent paying them fair market value is absurd. Jenkins said his property has been on the market for three years, initially priced at $200,000.
He also said fair market value, as determined by an appraisal, should be the basis for pricing.
During the discussion among the council members, Matthews was asked to explain the process and he said there were federal rules for acquisition that were followed in the process.
“We hired an appraiser to assess the value of the property,” he said. “The appraiser made the assessment and it was a full report of what the value of the property is based on fair market value.”
Matthews said an appraisal was used and an offer was rejected, so a meeting was held to explain the process and address concerns. As a result of the meeting, the property owners had their appraisal done so the city offered 20 percent more from their original offer.
“They did not like it. As a result of that, the recommendation was that we use eminent domain if we can’t come to an agreement,” said Mathews, adding that will allow the city to move forward with the project while a judge decides on the fair market value price.
Matthews said a check with city’s offer will be submitted when it files for eminent domain.
Council Member Lanette Frazier pointed out key points to remember, such as the primary purpose of the property being taken must be for the public good and improvements.
Matthews agreed, stating governments can’t simply seize property and there’s a legal process involved. The process typically involves opportunities for owners to challenge the taking or negotiate compensation. The property acquisition in this case, according to Matthews, aims to enhance the district through infrastructure development.
Some council members, however, were hesitant to approve a project due to potential issues such as securing sufficient funding for the entire project by Delta Rhythm and Bayous. The project also involves designing the usage of properties, but specific details are unclear.
Eminent domain, according to Matthews, was last used on Convention Center Drive. Matthews said these issues are usually resolved before it goes to court. Matthews said out of the six property owners, one has committed to the offer from the city. That person owns three properties within the district.
The remaining owners said they sought legal advice from a real estate attorney to navigate the situation and are now frustrated by the process. They also feel that the city is not being reasonable.
“My advice to anyone wanting to invest in Pine Bluff is to proceed cautiously because the city leaders need to go back to remedial education,” said Jenkins after the city council meeting.
In other city business, the council approved a resolution to transfer a 2014 Dodge Charger from the Pine Bluff Police Department to the Marshal Service of the city of Wheatley for law enforcement.