When Millcreek residents learned that their neighborhoods were being considered in a study commissioned by their city, they said Google helped them understand what that meant.
It wasn’t a review of street lamps or sewer systems. It had to do with a very ugly — and potentially explosive — word: blight.
Through their internet searches, they learned what a blight study is used for: eminent domain. In other words, it could ultimately give Millcreek the power to condemn their private property as part of a development project known as community reinvestment, and take over the land.
Disturbed by what they learned and armed with that knowledge, a group of residents banded together with lawyers to fight the study, and they won in December.
Now, some are concerned about a bill being considered that would strike “blight” from Utah code. In its place: the vague term “development impediment.”
“If this bill had been around back then, it would been a lot harder to fight it,” said Millcreek resident Tina Grant.
Millcreek residents like Grant also fear that the other changes proposed in the bill encourage Millcreek to revive the blight study.
The word “blight,” is often defined as decay, dilapidation and deterioration, but Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, said it’s a loaded word that can also mean something different in state code.
Under state law, blight also includes “defective construction of buildings or infrastructure, or significant noncompliance with current building code, safety code, health code, or fire code requirements or local ordinances.”
“We want to take that explosive, emotional word out of it and be more accurate in our definitions,” said Winder.
In Utah, developers looking to create a community reinvestment project area need to go through a taxing entity committee — which consists of representatives from counties and various fire, water and school districts within the project area. The committees approve the creation of a project area and determine if the area is blighted.
But in practice over the years, such committees have been used rarely. Instead, they have been replaced by community reinvestment agencies. Those agencies are made up of city council members and mayors, said Matt Dahl, the president of the Utah Developers Association, who supports Winder’s bill.
Winder’s bill, H.B. 245, would allow community reinvestment agencies to make blight determinations on their own. These agencies still would need to form agreements with local counties and the other stakeholders in the project area.
Winder’s bill also cleans up the rules that the reinvestment agencies operate under, Dahl said. He hopes that will make it easier for Utahns to understand what community reinvestment projects mean.
“It’s not going to directly make our jobs easier,” Dahl said. “It doesn’t create a new pathway that makes it easier for us to create project areas.”
But Milad Emam, one of the lawyers that represented Millcreek residents, said he worries that giving the reinvestment agencies more power could make it easier for Utah cities to take control of residents’ properties.
Aaron Walker agrees. He’s another Millcreek resident who fought the study that might have given his neighborhood the dreaded designation of blighted. In his opinion, the changes seem to make easier for a city to take property within a community reinvestment area.
Rep. Winder, who also serves as the economic development director for Millcreek, argued that the city won’t be affected by his bill, because there are no current blight plans for the area.
The city of Millcreek supports Winder’s bill.