Letter from Wheaton

Recently on the del.cio.us sidebar I linked to a very funny article called “How to Cheat Good.” Written by university professor Alex Halavais, it offers tips for cheating on papers without making the mistakes his students so often do. My favorite tip is the blatantly obvious number eight:

8. Edit > Paste Special > Unformatted Text

This is my Number 1 piece of advice, even if it is numbered eight. When you copy things from the web into Word, ignoring #3 above, don’t just “Edit > Paste” it into your document. When I am reading a document in black, Times New Roman, 12pt, and it suddenly changes to blue, Helvetica, 10pt (yes, really), I’m going to guess that something odd may be going on. This seems to happen in about 1% of student work turned in, and periodically makes me feel like becoming a hermit.

Which brings me to the email I received this morning from Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan. He is the first of the government officials to respond to a lengthy email I sent them about Barry’s Magic Shop and the county’s use of eminent domain. It would not have taken me long after starting to read it that this was a form letter failing to address half the things I wrote about it. An even bigger giveaway, however, was that “Dear Mr. Grier:” was in bright blue type while the rest of the text was black.

I don’t mind getting a form letter. I understand that when you spend your time eminent domaining people, you probably have to deal with a lot of email. I’d just like to see a little effort, you know?

So anyway, that’s the unintentionally funny part of the correspondence. And I’m actually glad he’s got this form letter made up, because at least that means he’s getting enough emails about Barry’s to make it worth writing one.

I’ve copied the letter beneath the fold if you’d like to read it. There’s nothing really new here, just more of the county’s reasons for why a bigger alley would be nice and no mention of eminent domain.

Dear Mr. Grier:

Thank you for your recent correspondence concerning Barry’s Magic Shop located in downtown Wheaton. I assure you that Montgomery County is working diligently to keep Barry’s Magic Shop in the Wheaton community where it has been an important business for so many years. After years of planning and negotiation, Montgomery County recently purchased the freestanding building in which Barry’s Magic Shop is located at 11234 Georgia Avenue. The building is a converted wood frame residential structure that is sandwiched between two important retail centers that front Georgia Avenue, one of the main streets of the Wheaton Central Business District. This building is slated for demolition and will complete an important pedestrian connection between the west side of Georgia Avenue and the public parking lot located in the Wheaton Triangle.

The purchase of this property to accommodate the walkway has been planned by the County for more than 12 years, and has been included in plans since the early 1990s. The completion of the pathway is a key component for providing a safer and more accessible pedestrian circulation system in downtown Wheaton. We recognize that Barry’s Magic Shop is one of Wheaton’s most unique businesses and has a long-standing and loyal clientele. It is our fervent wish to retain this one-of-a-kind business in our downtown. The staff of the Wheaton Redevelopment Office is working very hard to relocate this important and well known Wheaton business within the Central Business District.

County staff has advised the owner of Barry’s Magic Shop that funds are available to assist the business in relocating, and staff will continue to work with the owner to provide available relocation assistance. The assistance offered includes help in finding a nearby and convenient location for the business; moving assistance; temporary storage of merchandise; rental assistance; and related financial help to ease the pain of relocating a business. We are hopeful that the owner will take advantage of this assistance and use this opportunity for a fresh start that will revitalize the business to serve the magic needs of this and future generations of Montgomery County residents. We hope that you will encourage the owner to keep the business in Wheaton and that you will continue to support Barry’s Magic Shop in a new location.

The community’s need for a safe and accessible pedestrian connection between the public parking lot and the shops on Georgia Avenue is an overriding public consideration. I believe that a pedestrian friendly downtown is very important to the overall success of the County’s program to revitalize downtown Wheaton. With proper lighting, the walkway will be much safer and functional for evening use by downtown patrons.

I appreciate your taking the time to share your support for keeping Barry’s Magic Shop in Wheaton.

Sincerely,

Douglas M. Duncan

County Executive

Comments

  1. Barzelay says:

    To be fair, that doesn’t really sound that bad.

  2. Chad says:

    I respectfully disagree; David. I would say that Mr. Duncan just specifically highlighted the worst of all possible reasons for demolition:

    The building is a converted wood frame residential structure that is sandwiched between two important retail centers that front Georgia Avenue, one of the main streets of the Wheaton Central Business District. This building is slated for demolition and will complete an important pedestrian connection between the west side of Georgia Avenue and the public parking lot located in the Wheaton Triangle.

    Mr. Duncan is saying that he wants to relocate (or, at present, demolish and maybe relocate) one established business specifically to make it easier to access the other established businesses. In that respect, this may actually be worse than Kelo. The county isn’t even saying there’s a new redevelopment project that will provide more tax revenues to the city (which is incredulous in and of itself); it’s actually claiming that access to some businesses overrules the existence of others!

    Let’s put aside the fact that the people can just walk around one building or another to the preexisting intersections instead of needing a walkway between the two. And let’s also leave aside the fact that the county has claimed a legitimate right to force the sale for half the price that the land would command on the open market, instead of paying what it’s actually worth if they want an alley that bad. And moreover, let’s leave aside the fact that no person in their right mind could believe the city is building an alley to help the existing businesses, as opposed to the ones they hope to attract and might well assist in moving into that location. Even taking this letter at complete face value, this is straight favoritism. This is the county saying that some businesses are more equal than others.

    But what it’s not is fair to the landowner and business owners who selected a location that the citizens of the community would find valuable enough to frequent, and then helped to develop the area through their continued investment in Barry’s Magic Shop. It’s a bitter reward our elected officials are paying these entrepreneurs for a job well done.

  3. Barzelay says:

    Yes, let me be more verbose this time. What I meant to say was that, if they are going to forcibly take away Barry’s Magic Shop, then at the very least it does seem like they are making it easy for the shop to relocate. If you’re going to get shut down anyway, this particular situation doesn’t seem nearly as bad as it could be. I didn’t mean that the taking itself wasn’t horrible.

    Although, I don’t quite understand what you mean in saying the county has forced the sale at half price. Explain that.

  4. Chad says:

    And by taking one of your many good points to follow-up discussion, I certainly wasn’t trying to project a side onto you that you clearly haven’t taken :)

    Regarding forcing the sale at half price, I’m referring to the land sale as mentioned in the Examiner piece:

    The county threatened to condemn the building and, its owner George Chaconas said, finally sued last year. Chaconas said he settled out of court with the county agreeing to pay $987,000 for the building. He told The Examiner that he felt strong-armed into the deal.

    “I didn’t sell it to the county,” Chaconas said. “They took it.”

    Please correct me if you find statistics to prove otherwise, but my understanding is that the plot of land in question would comman over twice that price on the open market, but that thanks to an eminent domain threat the owner signed it over at the price the county offered.

    To be fair myself, I believe the original point of eminent domain laws was to keep one landowner from holding out at a ridiculous price and screwing the whole community out of something that would serve a clear public purpose. But it seems that even a supporter of eminent domain in the strict sense would want to see (a) the land assessed by someone other than the county’s assessor, (b) evidence that the owner was clearly using his knowledge of the county’s development plan to keep the sale price artificially high, and (c) that the project in question would serve not only a clear public purpose but one more “valuable” than the investor willing to buy the land at the market price.

    (And if you’re not a supporter of eminent domain in the strict sense, then even the qualifiers I just enumerated will seem unsatisfactory.)

    Regarding the county’s attempt to make relocation as easy as possible, I would contend that at this point that assertion is largely fluff. To reference the recent Washington Times piece:

    Mr. Davis said the county uses established guidelines to allocate the public funds that would assist them.

    He said if the owners decide to relocate to another building in Wheaton, the county would pay up to $10,000 to cover the costs associated with moving as well as tasks such as building outfitting. Or owners have the option to take a lump sum of about $20,000 if they do not know where they will relocate to. He said the county will sit down with Mr. Taylor to discuss the options.

    I don’t know how much it actually costs to move, but I seriously doubt they can move everything in that shop for $20,000. More importantly, my understanding is that their low rent was based on a longstanding good faith relationship with the landlord, and that they will be paying considerably more in monthly rent for a less profitable and likely smaller location. The personal equivalent is something like your landlord requiring you to move from your metro-friendly house to the 12th floor of a smaller apartment a mile away, and telling you that your rent’s going to be doubled, but that he’s happy to provide you with moving expenses up to one-fourth the cost of your U-Haul.

    I understand your point that some of the county officials may legitimately want the business to remain in the area, but it’s still a crappy deal that could easily put the shop out of business any way the story plays out.

  5. Barzelay says:

    “thanks to an eminent domain threat the owner signed it over at the price the county offered.”

    That’s because the owner was foolish. Even an extremely liberal interpretation of eminent domain powers does not mean the government can take land at less than its fair market value. Had the owner forced the county actually to use its eminent domain power, instead of just selling it to them, he would have had the opportunity to have the value assessed by an independent appraiser, and would eventually have had the opportunity to fight over the value in court.

  6. Chad says:

    Agreed, except for the term “foolish”. Foolish implies that a rational player with the necessary facts at his disposal makes an irrational decision. As unfortunate as it may be that I can’t elaborate further, let’s just say that I have good reason to doubt this condition has been satisfied. Not a fair debating move, I’ll admit, so I’ll respectfully table my argument until such time as everything’s on the table.

  7. Jacob Grier says:

    To second Chad’s comment, there is indeed much that we heard but cannot verify that makes it difficult to discuss in detail here. It’s fair to point out, though, that the owner did have legal representation who apparently failed to push for a fairer deal. I would like to find out how many eminent domain takings are truly compensated for at fair market value and how many are given up more easily in light of pressure from county officials and inadequate resources or information on the part of owners.

    Secondly, I can say that the accomodations the county is making now are significantly better than what we’d heard talk of previously. In that regard, negative publicity appears to be making some difference. That said, I agree with Chad that the county’s offers will likely be inadequate. Further, there is no well to tell just from the officials’ statements how helpful they will actually be in real life.

  8. Barzelay says:

    And in a very real sense, there is no adequate compensation for more than a quarter century of memories built up in a piece of property.

    But Chad, you’re forgetting something about rationality. Your supposedly uninformed market player is at least informed enough to know to get a lawyer. If his lawyer fails adequately to advocate for him, then his recourse is against his lawyer.

  9. Chad says:

    I wouldn’t say I was forgetting something about rationality, in that I would expect most people adept enough to manage tenants on a property will also be adept enough to hire a lawyer whenever a million-dollar deal is in the works — particularly one that seems shady or unfair. I think you’re right to point out that the county could easily claim to be simply the fortunate benefeciary of a poorly negotiated transaction. (Think “bank error in your favor; demolish 1 magic shop”.) And unless/until any tangible evidence of a “backroom” story becomes public, I believe this is exactly why the landlord’s case would be difficult to argue in court.

    The county’s position of “what’s good for Joe Davis is good for the public interest” is certainly a poor substitute for being the defender of the little guy, so I won’t accept a total redirection of blame to the lawyer. Nonetheless, your point is well taken that, when a terrible abuse of the law is being committed, the effectiveness of the law in providing restitution relies on the effectiveness of the advocates of said restitution.

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