The city of Glendale’s threat to use eminent domain against a private business has to be nothing more than a tacky negotiating tactic, right?
Surely Mayor Mike Dunafon wouldn’t actually use the power of government to get rid of a recalcitrant rug merchant standing in the way of his pet project, a $175 million development known as Glendale 180. Perhaps he just wants to drive down the asking price.
Dunafon, after all, is a libertarian officeholder who has flooded YouTube with dozens of videos promoting economic and personal freedom. The cigar-smoking former football and rugby player made many of them while running for governor as an independent last year,
Glendale 180, originally known as Riverwalk, would cover 22 acres with mixed use retail, entertainment and dining. Dunafon claims it would create 1,000 jobs and “revitalize” not just Glendale but the entire metro area.
But there’s a sticky wicket on a corner of the 22 acres: Authentic Persian and Oriental Rugs, 550 S. Colorado Blvd., at the corner of Cherry Creek Drive South. It’s been there 25 years.
Four members of the Kholghy family own that store and two other empty ones on almost 6 acres of land within the proposed project. Saeed Kholghy said neither the city nor the project developer has made a specific offer for the property. But for several years the family and the city discussed the possibility of developing the property jointly.
No agreement was reached and in May 2013 the city council voted to declare riverfront land, including the Kholghy property, “blighted.” That would make “urban renewal” projects possible.
Last week the council took the next step, which was to pass unanimously a resolution authorizing the use of eminent domain if necessary. Dunafon was quoted as saying the city has never used eminent domain and would work with landowners on a redevelopment plan.
But the city has already arranged to have Wulfe & Co. of Houston develop the site. The Kolghy family has sued the city in Arapahoe District Court claiming their own plans were improperly denied in favor of Wulfe’s.
At a 2013 gun-rights rally Dunafon referred to his small (0.6 square miles, 4,200 residents) enclave inside Denver as “the Vatican of liberty.” But it’s looking more like the Vatican and less like liberty now.
Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan doesn’t even pretend to be libertarian, but he isn’t condemning existing businesses to build the $825 million Gaylord Rockies Hotel and conference center. The worst the city has done is declare some empty agricultural land blighted. Construction began last month even though the project is under attack in court for alleged violations of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
The Gaylord project is relying on $81.4 million in state subsidies from the Regional Tourism Act. Glendale unsuccessfully pursued a subsidy from the same pot in 2012 — perhaps the first indication of Dunafon’s willingness to compromise his libertarian principles for the sake of financing development. The city spent $200,000 preparing its application to the Colorado Economic Development Commission for state aid to what was then still the Riverfront project — even though Dunafon had posted a video in which he proclaimed “more and not less liberty, less and not more government …. Get the government out of our business!”
Condemnation of private land for public uses such as highways and pipelines is well established in law. But condemnation of one private business to help another business that is more favored by government is a recent trend. To be sure the practice has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, 5-4, in the infamous Kelo vs. the City of New London decision of 2005. That ruling has been condemned by progressives, conservatives and libertarians alike. It is loved only by city governments and crony capitalists.
Perhaps the Kholghy family can take heart from the story of Vera Coking, a homeowner in Atlantic City whose property was coveted by Donald Trump. He wanted her property so he could have a parking lot for limousines at his nearby casino. When Coking refused to sell, Trump got the city to condemn her property. Her compensation was to be $251,000 — 12 times what she had paid for the property in 1961. But she fought and with the legal help of the Institute for Justice in Washington she prevailed. The judge didn’t rule against the principle of taking one person’s business and giving it to another; he just said that since there were no limits on what Trump could do with the property, the taking didn’t meet the test of law. Happily, Trump’s casino eventually went broke.
In a weird way, it looks as though history might repeat itself in Glendale. Dunafon likes to tell the story about how his local Tea Party got started. Back in 1998, Glendale Mayor Joe Rice wanted to shut down Shotgun Willie’s, the strip club founded and still operated by Dunafon’s wife, Debbie Matthews. Rice didn’t try condemnation; he had enacted what Dunafon calls “time, place and manner” regulations designed to make the place inoperable: Bright lights, higher age limits and the like. A few days later Dunafon said he was approached by a man who said he had plans for the property: “I’m going to put an office building on the corner.”
“Politics was the only answer to this problem,” Dunafon told a group called Liberty on the Rocks in February 2014. Matthews sent out strippers armed with drink tickets and voter registration cards to the city’s apartment buildings. It worked; at the next election Rice’s supporters were voted out of city council and the regulations were eased.
Wouldn’t it be ironic if the anti-condemnation folks tried a similar tactic against Dunafon should he persist in condemnation proceedings? It’s worth noting that the Institute for Justice is already involved in helping the rug store defend itself against the threats posed by the “libertarian” Dunafon and Glendale.
Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes twice a month for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com.