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Welton Corridor plan before Denver City Council: An opening for eminent domain?

Welton Street
Welton Street

Tonight, Denver City Council will vote on a plan to redevelop the Welton Corridor -- and some property owners in the area fear that if it passes, it will allow the city to seize their homes and businesses. But the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, the entity behind the proposal, argues that those concerns are misguided, saying the plan doesn't actually authorize eminent domain.

At stake tonight is the Welton Corridor Urban Redevelopment Area, created by DURA, an agency charged with redeveloping blighted areas and fostering growth and development in Denver's neighborhoods.

Map of proposed Welton Corridor Urban Redevelopment area
Map of proposed Welton Corridor Urban Redevelopment area
Welton Corridor Conditions Study

DURA is urging city council to approve its plan as groundwork for a long-term redevelopment of the region, which includes the historic Five Points neighborhood. DURA believes a favorable city council vote would be a way of acknowledging that the area is blighted, a requirement for urban renewal projects like this one, even as it endorses a range of objectives, including historic preservation, plus business and housing revitalization.

This proposed area is approximately 85 acres, located immediately northeast of downtown Denver and centered around Welton Street. (The boundaries of the designated area are Broadway on the west, Glenarm Place and 24th Avenue on the south, Downing Street on the east and California Street on the north end).

One particular clause in the plan, however, has some property owners in the neighborhood concerned. It reads:

The Authority may acquire property through the use of its statutory power of eminent domain in accordance with all applicable statutory requirements only after the City Council approves, after a public hearing, the use of such powers for the related Project.

Lynne Bruning, who owns about 18,000 square feet in the area and has been located there for seventeen years, has been leading an effort to encourage the city council to vote down the proposal.

She is behind the site takingwelton.com and a Petition on Change.org, which urges folks to prevent the council and DURA from making more than 200 properties vulnerable to eminent domain.

Here's a video of her plea.

She argues that the plan contradicts a Colorado House Bill that she says protects property owners from land condemnation for economic development or tax revenue enhancement. Here's a passage from that legislation:

If the condemnation action involves a taking for the eradication of blight, the bill requires the condemning entity to demonstrate, by clear and convincing evidence, that the taking of the property is for a public use. This bill also precludes the taking of private property for transfer to a private entity for the purpose of economic development or tax revenue enhancement.

Eminent domain allows governments to seize private property for a public good if they provide just compensation to the landowners.

Bruning says it's clear to her that this latest effort would take away property owners' protections against this kind of land seizure.

"There is a time and a place for eminent domain, I understand that," says Bruning, a textile artist who has a live-work setup at her property in the redevelopment zone. "But what this proposal actually does is violate...[the] house bill."

She adds, "If we can stop the city council from...approving it...then there isn't a legal battle.... We're trying to stop it before it becomes a legal problem."

Continue reading for DURA's response to the property owner's concerns and for the full redevelopment plan before Denver City Council.

Tracy Huggins, DURA's executive director, argues that opponents of the plan who fear eminent domain generally misunderstand the proposal.

Example of "blight"
Example of "blight"
Welton Corridor Conditions Study

The plan merely reiterates the rights that DURA, as an urban renewal authority, has under state statute, Huggins says. In these kinds of projects, the agency may acquire property through the "statutory power of eminent domain," but only after the city council approves it and it goes through a lengthy review process.

"This plan doesn't authorize eminent domain," she says, noting that if the plan tonight is passed, any condemnation in the future would have to again go before city council.

She adds that DURA has only used eminent domain three times in thirty years, saying, "It's an extraordinary tool to be used only in extraordinary circumstances."

Huggins adds that the proposal does not violate the bill Bruning mentions, arguing that the establishment of blight in this case would be considered the impetus for a "public good" if eminent domain were to be used. Huggins interprets the bill to mean that land can't be condemned simply for economic development purposes, and DURA would't ever make that argument. If -- and she emphasizes that it's a big if -- DURA were to use eminent domain, it would be justified through the Welton Corridor blight study, which establishes various conditions that add up to an official blight designation.

"It's unfortunate that so much of the conversation has shifted to the potential use of eminent domain, which I can't emphasize enough is not authorized in the Urban Renwal Plan," says Huggins.

According to her, the plan notes that a primary method of funding projects under this proposal would be Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, a process that allows DURA to capture new or incremental taxes that are created when a property is redeveloped, and use those revenues to help subsidize the project.

In a 9News report on the proposal, Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks says he supports the plan, but he would not support the use of eminent domain.

Another example of "blight"
Another example of "blight"
Welton Corridor Conditions Study

Huggins adds: "A lot of the property owners have had this property in their family for a good number of years. Our goal really is to provide the maximum opportunity for property owners to be a participant in the redevelopment."

But landowners like Bruning argue that this proposal has the potential to do the opposite, possibly shutting them out from the neighborhood's redevelopment.

"To put up this boundary, this red line, around our corridor and say that I, as a Denver resident, am going to be treated differently...than my neighbor," she says, "that's playing favoritism."

In her video, Bruning says, "Although I want to see Welton Street turn into a vibrant, exciting community, it should not be done so forsaking the long-term property holders' rights."

She adds, "Let Denver City Council know that America is watching -- that you do care about the property rights and civil rights of those people living and working along the Welton Corridor," she adds.

The public hearing on this subject gets underway tonight at 5:30 p.m.

Here's the full redevelopment plan.

RDV_FINAL DRAFT Welton Corridor Urban Redevelopment Plan

And here's the Welton Corridor Conditions Study, determining blight.

RDV_FINAL DRAFT of the Welton Corridor Conditions Study

More from our Politics archive: "Photos: Gates preservation bid rejected by landmark commission"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.