What is definition of blight?

“Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying.’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’”

“‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast…’”

- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

The White Queen in Carroll’s beguiling sequel to Alice in Wonderland would have been right at home during last week’s meeting of the Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Authority.

By a 5-4 margin the commissioners voted to endorse a report from the Leland Consulting Group that described 200 acres of raw land on the city’s north boundary as “blighted.”

The company based its conclusion upon conditions that might apply to any undeveloped property in Colorado. The road network is inadequate, the terrain problematic and previous development plans are impracticable.

So what’s the purpose of the designation?

To provide a tax-advantaged “tool” that would, in theory at least, enable the land’s owner to fund the extension of Powers Boulevard to Interstate 25. Such an extension would vastly increase the value of the land and make a proposed development attractive to major tenants. And that would, again in theory, slow the outflow of big-box tax revenue away from the city to sites in the county.

That’s fine. The extension of Powers Boulevard would certainly benefit commercial landowners in the city’s northeast quadrant, as well as the affluent neighborhoods that a new development would serve.

Yet it’s particularly ironic to see a governmental body use its power to accomplish ends that appear to contradict the goals which led to its creation.

State law is clear. An urban renewal authority may be established “for the purpose of eliminating slum or blighted areas, as defined by the statute, within the municipality, and clearing such areas for development or redevelopment.”

To use the powers conferred upon such authorities to speed development on a city’s periphery is a grotesque perversion of the law.

Such development is easily accomplished without tax incentives and sweetheart deals. Compared to the inherent difficulties of redeveloping truly blighted areas, it’s easy to develop raw land.

The authority ought to focus upon real blight, not partner in accelerating business and investment flight to the city’s periphery. Successful communities understand that suburbanization comes with many costs to their central cores.

Our city is plagued not by blighted prairie, but by the decline of once-thriving business districts, and the decay of aging close-in neighborhoods. The Urban Renewal Authority has already designated several downtown and near-downtown parcels as ‘blighted,’ but development has been slow to follow. That’s regrettable, but it doesn’t mean that the authority ought to become a free-floating, essentially purposeless entity handing out tax breaks to ingenious developers.

After accepting Leland’s report, the authority hired Leland to create an urban renewal plan, which may be presented to city council later this month. It’s important to note that Leland’s business depends upon finding blight, whether or not it exists, and creating a legally defensible rationale for acting upon their ‘findings.’ City Council has the final say on the deal. We hope that they’ll decline to believe even one impossible thing after breakfast, and put the kibosh on this unlikely scheme.