commentary (2007-09)

Yet another Campfield-sponsored stupid idea


by Matt Edens

After basking in the spotlight earned last year by his rather spurious request to join the Legislature's black caucus, Stacey Campfield is at it again. You've probably seen reports of "The Rep's" controversial bill requiring death certificates be filed for aborted fetuses.

Garnering media attention is precisely the point of filing such legislation, otherwise likely to be a non-starter. The Rep is certainly reveling in the publicity. In a blog post to his legions of fans, announcing his upcoming appearance on CNN's Headline News the other day, The Rep urged "get your TiVo ready." (Alas, he missed an earlier shout-out about the bill from Rush Limbaugh--on Valentine's Day, no less.)

But the abortion bill is only one of several recent filings by Campfield. Two others, HB778 and HB983, revolve around another of The Rep's favorite topics: eminent domain. Piggybacking on the negative publicity generated by the Supreme Court decision in the Kelo vs. New London case, Campfield has been one of countless conservative politicians who've condemned such economic development condemnations in order to portray themselves as champions of downtrodden homeowners' property rights.

Now I've been fairly critical of the New London case, myself. In it, the city used a number of blighted properties as the excuse to condemn an entire neighborhood, assemble it into a single large parcel and then turn the land over to a private developer (looking to build a conference center connected to pharmaceutical giant Pfizer).

Such assemblage techniques, tantamount to "urban removal," are ripe for abuse. Campfield, demonstrating that a broken clock is right twice a day, does make a half-hearted attempt to address that issue, proposing in one of the bills that the term "blighted area" be restricted to a single parcel. I almost hate to point out that, for the Jackson-Depot redevelopment area that spurred The Rep's 11th-hour ride to Mark Saroff's defense, "blight" was determined on a parcel-by-parcel basis. (Indeed the blighted designation was removed from one of Saroff's properties, the old Southern Freight Depot, when the deterioration was addressed.)

I'm even less impressed by The Rep's relative approach to property rights. The same bill, HB983, restricts "blight" to properties whose condition "causes the risk of immediate physical harm to people or other property." Fiscal harm, as in "a loss of property value to surrounding parcels of land, even if caused by the single parcel," doesn't count in The Rep's book. I would hope, at least, that a homeowner won't have to wait for the absentee-owned, boarded-up property next door to burst into flames before The Rep will recognize that it puts their property at "risk of immediate physical harm."

Even more interesting are the restrictions The Rep seeks on what a government entity can do, should a property constitute such an immediate risk. HB778 proposes "the taking of private property determined to be blighted through eminent domain shall be for the sole purpose of repairing or demolishing such property." The demolition part, is odd since the city already has the power to demolish codes-deficient structures without acquiring ownership (makes me wonder where The Rep's going with that one). The repair part will no doubt be a comfort to homeowners across the inner city. In programs like Homemakers, where the city could acquire abandoned and boarded-up properties and resell them to someone willing to fix it up, The Rep would require that the taxpayers fix the property and then return it to the owner who let it run down in the first place. Oh, and to pay for the repairs, Campfield proposes that the city attach a tax lien to the property, since everyone knows how scrupulous slumlords are about paying their taxes.

Oh well, I suppose I expect too much hoping that The Rep would appreciate the inner city perspective. After all, his largely suburban district doesn't really include much of Knoxville's inner city. Still, as the owner of at least a half-dozen rental properties on the fringes of Mechanicsville and Old North Knoxville, I'd think The Rep would realize what a problem absentee landlords can be in the inner city, and how popular programs like Homemakers are with neighboring homeowners.