Thursday, December 3, 2009

Disposition of Public Property: Some Thoughts

The DC Council is (finally) moving forward in considering legislation that will require an assessment of potential public uses of public property before it is deemed "surplus" and sold for private development.  Earlier this week, a bill passed first reading.  Providing an open and transparent process for the sale of public property that guarantees community input is a goal that we should all support. 

Here are some thoughts on current or potential elements of the legislation:
  • The legislation should factor in that a public use does not in every situation provide the greatest public benefit.  For example, a vacant lot owned by the DC government in Ward 8 might offer more to residents as a supermarket than a government office.  Likewise, development of a publicly-owned building in a residential neighborhood for private housing might be strongly favored by residents over a drug rehabilitation clinic or social service agency.
  • Parks, schools, and libraries should have the strongest presumption against private sale.  Once a green space is sold and developed, it's gone for good.
  • Whenever feasible, public properties, particularly historic properties, when made available for private use, should be leased (preferably short-term), not sold, so the city can reclaim them for public use when a need arises.
  • Not all government-owned properties are created equal.  For example, the District owns numerous vacant houses and residential-zoned lots.  Those properties fall into government hands as a result of fire, calamity, or abandonment.  The problem with those properties is not that they are sold off too fast, but that they decay for decades under District neglect.  Such properties should be put back into private residential use as soon as possible.  If such properties are placed in an affordable housing program, then the program should have its own expedited process for renovation and sale.  Councilmember Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) has reportedly introduced an amendment to address this issue by providing that blighted or dilapidated properties that the city acquires “for the sole purpose of converting them to productive commercial uses” should be exempt from the bill's provisions.
  • The legislation should not include a private right of action to enforce its provisions.  Some have advocated for such a tool and their intentions are understandable and good.  However, it is important that the bill not create a situation where a single person can easily destroy a project that is supported by a community by seeking an injunction in court for a claimed technical violation during the transfer process.  Developers will be very hesitant to enter into a project in which there could be a cloud on the title due to a legal challenge.

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