Wyoming Liberty Group
Blight in the Eye of the Beholder
Cleaning up “blighted” property is a popular new trend in Wyoming cities. Local government officials and candidates around the state have joined the anti-blight cause. Unfortunately, proposed solutions could erode property rights, impose high costs on taxpayers, and threaten financial ruin for the very people officials and candidates claim to want to help. Owners and occupants of government-targeted property have reason to worry. Blight designation is largely a subjective matter based on personal preference. One person’s blighted property might be someone else’s home on a responsible budget.
The Wyoming Urban Renewal Code defines a blighted area at W. S.§ 15-9-103 (a)(iii)
"Blighted area" means an area which by reason of the presence of a substantial number of slums, deteriorated or deteriorating structures, predominance of defective or inadequate street layout, faulty lot layout in relation to size, adequacy, accessibility or usefulness, unsanitary or unsafe conditions, deterioration of site or other improvements, diversity of ownership, tax or special assessments, delinquency exceeding the fair value of the land, defective or unusual conditions of title, or the existence of conditions which endanger life or property by fire and other causes, or any combination of those factors, substantially impairs or arrests the sound growth of a municipality, retards the provision of housing accommodations or constitutes an economic or social liability and is a menace to the public health, safety, morals or welfare in its present condition and use. However, if the blighted area consists of open land, the conditions contained in W.S. 15-9-110(b) apply and any disaster area referred to in W.S. 15-9-112 constitutes a "blighted area"
This definition of blight is broad and flexible. It covers crumbling buildings that threaten surrounding property or passers-by. But at its most extreme, the language could empower a city to seize private property based on bad street maintenance. For example, potholes could be considered deteriorating improvements that are an economic liability because they are expensive to fix and a menace to safety. Under the Wyoming Urban Renewal Code, even open land can be deemed “blighted” if the city or town council decides it needs to acquire a pasture to implement an urban renewal plan. Based on this, the only real standard for determining what blighted means in Wyoming is whether the local government is aggressive enough to go after the property.
This definition of “blight” it is not just about safety, or even aesthetics. Blight removal is about people too. For example, a Cheyenne City Councilwoman is going after homes in a poor neighborhood in the name of removing urban blight. She demands the city take action to “clean up” trailer park blight while people live in the very homes she is trying to “get rid of…move…or do something with.” According to the news coverage, some of the 35 families that would be displaced are economically challenged or have criminal record in their past that drastically limit housing alternatives. When government officials decide to impose their own priorities onto citizens, the result can come at a high cost and often make the original problem worse.
Unfortunately, this extremely vague “blight” definition is one that politicians around the country frequently exploit to force people off property they wish to turn into lavish projects. Wyoming is no different. There are several recent examples of city officials and candidates around Wyoming making similar promises to launch aggressive blight removal projects. The City of Casper recently used Wyoming’s loose definition of blight to secure a half-million dollar state grant to replace an occupied state office building and downtown furniture store with a public plaza. The Laramie City Council is exploring establishing an Urban Renewal Agency to pursue beautification by designating properties “blighted.” Now, one Cheyenne mayoral candidate is running on a platform that boasts a plan to create a “Fight the Blight Task Force.” Theoretically speaking, this unelected task force will have the power to create a list of “blighted” property owners to fine for something as simple as not being able to find a tenant.
If the Casper City Council can use Wyoming’s blight definition to win a massive state grant to demolish fully-occupied offices and stores simply because it would prefer a downtown plaza, what protection do property owners in Cheyenne or Laramie have when their city officials start hunting for blighted buildings?
It should not be this way for property owners in Wyoming. The Institute for Justice has represented dozens of property owners across the country for over a decade, fighting what they call “bogus blight.” Through the course of their battles, they crafted a much better “blight” definition. Wyoming should adopt a similar, strong definition of “blight” to better protect private property owners from city officials who might find the fruits of their labor unsightly or distasteful.
Our position is that our liberties should never be limited by any except the most necessary and clearly defined laws. The term “blight”, as it has been defined, is inconsistent with that concept because it is overly-broad, subjective and therefore prone to being applied by government to almost any circumstance, urban or rural. It is therefore dangerous to us in concept and application, especially because a blight designation can be used by local government as a pretext to exercise eminent domain to take property without the landowner's consent. This is why be believe Wyoming should adopt a narrower, more objective definition of blight that would focus on life safety issues and that would not be so flexible as to justify taking rural property merely because some old equipment, automobiles, or even outbuildings remain on the premises. Aesthetic taste should not serve as the basis to erode the private property rights of the person who actually owns the property.
What about rural blight? what is your organization's position on junk cars, piles of unsightly old building materials, etc?