The Pennsylvania Supreme Court declined hearing a case that could have directly addressed “Kelo” issues. In In Re: Condemnation by the Redevelopment Authority of Lawrence County, properties were condemned pursuant to Pennsylvania’s Urban Redevelopment Law (“URL”). A precondition to condemning the properties under the URL was a determination that the properties or the area in which the properties were located were “blighted.” The URL has a very broad definition of “blight” and, in this case, the Lawrence County Planning Commission determined that the condemned properties were in a blighted area under the URL because they were “maintained in economically undesirable uses.”
An en banc panel of Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court – the Pennsylvania intermediary appellate court that hears eminent domain cases – sustained the property owners’ challenges to the takings. It stated that “[t]he critical issue before us is whether the URL, in specifying
‘economically undesirable use’ among the criteria listed in Section 2 that render an area blighted, opens the door to a condemnation for purely ‘economic development.’” The Commonwealth Court noted that the US Supreme Court in “Kelo v. City of New London . . . upheld a condemnation of residential buildings that were clearly not blighted in the sense of dilapidated but were located in a certified redevelopment area targeted for revitalization pursuant to a carefully considered plan, which included razing the residences to build a pharmaceutical research facility.” However, the Commonwealth Court continued, the relevant state in Kelo – Connecticut – had a statute that permitted condemnations for purely economic development regardless of blight issues.
Pennsylvania, however, does not have a statute that permits condemnation for purely economic development. However, the URL does use the phrase “economically undesirable land uses” in its blight definition. The Commonwealth Court held that this phrase “does not mean property that is merely put to a use other than the most economically profitable. Such an understanding of the term fails to focus the inquiry on the actual condition of the properties labeled as ‘blighted’ and instead improperly focuses the inquiry on a comparison of the present use with the proposed redevelopment use.”
Therefore, the Commonwealth Court held that the taking was improper and sustained the property owners’ challenges. The property owners attempted to appeal to the PA Supreme Court which is not an automatic right and is at the discretion of the Court. The PA Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal and, therefore, declined an opportunity to address Kelo type issues.
We should be careful, however, not to read too much into this. The case was specific to the URL. In addition, the Eminent Domain Code was amended in September, 2006 – after the takings in this case. The amended Code added additional restrictions to condemnations under the URL which would have made it highly unlikely that the condemnor would have even attempted to take the properties let alone survive a challenge.