There was some frustration Friday among judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit struggling to figure out how many plaintiffs are still in a suit challenging the District's taking of the Skyland Shopping Center.
A group of owners and tenants at the Southeast Washington shopping center say that the D.C. Council's exercise of eminent domain to seize the property was unconstitutional. Five years ago the council passed legislation targeting the land on which Skyland sits for public use. The plaintiffs sued in July 2004 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to block the city.
The suit kicked around the trial and appeals courts until February this year, when Judge Ricardo Urbina granted the District’s motion for summary judgment.
In the appeals court Oct. 16, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Elaine Mittleman, a solo practitioner in Falls Church, Va., argued the District never made a finding of “blight” and that the city has failed to articulate how the public will benefit from the taking of Skyland. “We maintain that the public benefit is speculative at best,” Mittleman said. She also said the District did not put forth a comprehensive development plan.
The D.C. Circuit judges—Chief Judge David Sentelle was sitting with Senior Judges Stephen Williams and A. Raymond Randolph—grappled with just how many plaintiffs are left in the suit. Sentelle, during oral argument, ordered both sides to submit supplemental briefs that address the status of the plaintiffs.
Carl Schifferle of the D.C. Attorney General’s Office said no plaintiffs are left. The group of purported plaintiffs, he said, includes former tenants and some plaintiffs who have been dismissed from the suit because their claims are moot. He argued that some of the plaintiffs recently signed license agreements that released the city from claims that arose from prior occupancy. Mittleman said no claims have been waived.
Williams grilled Schifferle about the District’s intent to purchase the land for some $25 million and then resell it for $4 million. Williams said that plan “raises questions.” He said that it “looks like a pretty sweet deal” for private interests and that the cost to taxpayers doesn’t “suggest an advancement of the public interest.” Schifferle responded there are no allegations of corruption or bribery.
Schifferle said there’s no contract to develop the property, just an “exclusive rights” agreement with a developer. Development of the land, he said, would serve as a catalyst to growth in Southeast Washington. Click here for a September 2006 Washington Post report on the Skyland battle.