NEW YORK TIMES — Church at center of debate on eminent domain

Note: AFA-Michigan will be endorsing a state constitutional amendment — set to appear on our November 2006 ballot — to prohibit local governments from condemning private homes and churches for private development projects that promise higher property tax revenue. Watch for more news on this issue.
New York, New York
January 25, 2006

Humble church is at center of debate on eminent domain
by Ralph Blumenthal

SAND SPRINGS, Okla., Jan. 23 – With bulldozers churning up the earth at the front door, the small Centennial Baptist Church in this struggling industrial hub west of Tulsa seems about to fall to the wrecker.

The Rev. Roosevelt Gildon in his Centennial Baptist Church, in Sand Springs, Okla. The church is resisting the city’s plan to clear the church and other occupants to make way for superstores like the Home Depot.

But the construction is just roadwork, for now. And that is all it will ever be if the congregation has its way.

“The Lord didn’t send me here to build a minimall,” said the longtime pastor, the Rev. Roosevelt Gildon.
In what a local newspaper called “a battle between God Almighty and the almighty dollar,” Sand Springs is moving ahead with a redevelopment plan to clear the church and other occupants from the rundown district near downtown to make way for superstores like the Home Depot.

“I’m open to anyone telling me how we’re going to pay for city services,” said Mayor Bob Walker, who said the city was seeking to negotiate fair prices with Mr. Gildon and other property owners – 41 offers have been accepted – and would use eminent domain only as a last resort.

Strengthened by a United States Supreme Court ruling last summer that approved the condemnation of private property by New London, Conn., for resale to other private interests for what the court called “public purpose,” municipalities around the country are considering similar forced takings, to a chorus of opposition by local interests and state legislators.

Bills to block such seizures are on the docket in Oklahoma and many other states, along with other ballot initiatives. Last summer, the Texas Legislature banned the taking of private property for more lucrative public ventures.

Here in Sand Springs, a city of 17,600 on the Arkansas River founded by Charles Page, the oilman, industrialist and philanthropist, the redevelopment plan dates from 2003. County voters agreed to add fractions of a penny to the sales tax for special projects, in the Sand Springs case $14.5 million to acquire private tracts on 96 acres along the highway for redevelopment.

But the project was thrust into the national spotlight on Jan. 17 with an article posted on National Review Online by a conservative group, Americans for Limited Government, based in Glenview, Ill., that has been working with Oklahomans in Action and other groups to gather signatures for the “Protect Our Homes” movement and budget-curbing measures on state ballots.

“It’s not just grandma’s house we have to worry about,” wrote Heather Wilhelm, communications director for the limited government group. “Now it’s God’s house, too.”

The Sand Springs Leader stepped up coverage of Mr. Gildon, and a local radio host, Dillon Dodge, broadcast a program on the dispute. “Hannity and Colmes,” the talk show on the Fox News Channel, plans a program from Sand Springs on Wednesday, Ms. Wilhelm said.

City officials, mortified at being portrayed as villains, protested that they had not seized any property and might not. “Eminent domain is not being used at this time to acquire property,” City Manager Loy Calhoun said in a statement Friday. “Media reports to the contrary are inaccurate.”

But in interviews, Mr. Calhoun and Mayor Walker acknowledged that it remained a last resort if the city and property owners could not agree on price.

Mr. Gildon, sitting in a pew of the church that he has led for 14 years, the last seven in a new building that cost $90,000, said he and other leaders of the congregation met last week with a relocation agent working for the city, the Cinnabar Service Company, and came away believing that they had little choice but to sell.

“If you tell me this is going to happen,” he said, “that tells me it’s eminent domain.”

He said the offer of $142,000 for the church and two extra lots was not enough to move to a new location where he could serve his 50 or so regular members. He said he was “praying over” the question of a counteroffer. “If I have to move,” he said, “we’re not going out of existence.”

Mr. Gildon, 48, who works full time for a machine tool manufacturer and is paid $520 a month by the church, said he was not leading a crusade on the issue and made a point of not bringing it up it up in his sermons.

“I’ve had to say, ‘Don’t let it go to your head,’ ” he said he told congregants. “We’re not celebrities. We’re here for God.”

But he said he was no pushover, either. He taped the meeting with the Cinnabar agent, John Thomas, and said he told city officials, “The Lord did not lead me here to sell out the church.”

If the parties cannot agree, a team of three appointed appraisers devises a final offer, and whether or not the seller is happy, the city can take it for that price – and sell it to someone else.

Other property owners in the first 25-acre redevelopment zone said they felt that the city’s initial offer of $1 a square foot was far too low. A fairer figure, several said, would be $8.50.

“I don’t have a problem with the city,” said Joe Harrison, who runs the Firestone dealership downtown. “I just don’t want them stealing my land.”

In the Muffler Stop a few blocks from the church, Ernie Nanney said the city first offered him $65,000 “which is less than I paid 25 years ago.” He said that he counteroffered $350,000 and that the city came back with $85,000.

In her small wood-frame house on Oak Street, Ray Jean Smith-Knight, 72, said that when she grew up a few houses away the neighborhood was “a little old Wall Street” of black professionals, and survivors of the Tulsa race riot of 1921 were welcomed to Sand Springs by Charles Page.

Ms. Smith-Knight said that she had yet to receive a buyout offer and that despite the deterioration of the area did not relish leaving.

“I’m not happy about it but I don’t have a choice,” she said. “So many people have passed away that used to be fighters. One or two cannot fight.”

Ruth Ellen Henry, founding director of the Sand Springs Cultural and Historical Museum, recalled a cleanup of the neighborhood a dozen years ago that removed a million pounds of debris but failed to halt its slide. She still has many friends there, she said, “but you can’t say they tore down paradise and built a parking lot.”

Photo: Stephen Holman for The New York Times

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