August 14, 2011
Texas Case Restricts City Admin Boards from Abating Blight without Just Compensation
The Texas Supreme Court recently issued an opinion that makes some new law in the crucial and evolving area of individual property rights versus local governments' objectives of abating blighted properites. From The Examiner newspapers, The Hazard Next Door: Texas Ruling Restricts Cities from Eliminating Blighted Structures.
The case, City of Dallas v. Heather Stewart, involved a situation similar to the one involving Thurmond. A city of Dallas board recommended that a long-dilapidated home be demolished. The city did that, but the owner, Stewart, sued in district court, saying the city had unlawfully taken her property. At trial, the jury ruled in her favor, and Stewart was awarded her $75,707.67 for the destruction of her home.
Dallas appealed the case to the Texas Supreme Court, which ruled July 1. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson acknowledged that cities “must be able to abate dilapidated structures” that “threaten neighborhoods.” But, Jefferson wrote, cities must set up a mechanism to address that threat that complies with Texas constitutional mandates that protect private property rights.
“Today we hold that a system that permits constitutional issues of this importance to be decided by an administrative board, whose decisions are essentially conclusive, does not correctly balance the need to abate nuisances against the rights accorded to property owners under our constitution,” Jefferson wrote, adding that independent review of a court is necessary.
Particularly in light of the foreclosure crisis, this type of decision could seriously handcuff local governments trying to make a difference in the current context; on the other hand, even though the facts of this case are unsympathetic, there still is an important constitutional right to just compensation. I wasn't tracking the case until after it came out and the reporter called, but it seems that it has already chilled similar local government actions here in Houston, and should be noted by public administrators across the US.
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