UA going after acre next to its tech park: Tucson (AZ) Citizen, 4/6/05

By La Monica Everett-Haynes

A local landowner may be forced to sell the UA [University of Arizona] a one-acre plot of Southeast Side land that skirts UA's Science and Technology Park.

The Arizona Board of Regents, on behalf of the UA, filed an eminent domain lawsuit in March against Dennis Keith Luttrell, according to Pima County Superior Court documents.

Eminent domain, which has disgruntled property owners for centuries, allows government entities to buy private property for public use when an owner refuses to sell. Sometimes government is successful; other times, it fails.

The parcel is a patch of desert land at 8650 S. Rita Road. Given the UA's desire to develop the Science and Technology Park, regents hope the courts will condemn the land, forcing Luttrell to let it go, court documents show.

The land would become a parking lot or be used to expand the park, said Paul Allvin, a UA spokesman.

The land is littered with old vehicles and airplane parts and poses environmental and safety problems, Allvin said.

"They may be leaking oil or gas into the ground and that lends a sense of urgency to this," Allvin said.

Vina Paulette Waters, Luttrell's ex-wife who is listed in the documents as a property beneficiary, said Luttrell purchased the plot more than 20 years ago.

Waters said the two divorced 22 years ago and she didn't know what Luttrell intended to do with the land. But, Waters said it isn't the first time Luttrell has had to protect his land from outside interests.

"It's sad," Waters said. "It's just the corporation going after the little guy."

Luttrell did not return messages left yesterday and Monday at Spanish Trail Apartments, 305 E. Benson Highway, which he owns.

Luttrell's desert land is worth $27,000, according to the Pima County Assessor's Web site. Allvin said the UA has made an offer and is awaiting Luttrell's reply.

Philip S. Abromowitz, a local attorney who specializes in eminent domain cases, said property owners generally can't stop agencies from taking their land once a decision has been made.

"The whole idea is in balancing private rights against public need and good," said Abromowitz, who has been involved in more than 220 such cases.

Yet the U.S. Constitution Fifth and Fourteenth amendments and the Arizona Constitution grant private property owners protection through court proceedings.

Pima County Superior Court has scheduled a May 9 hearing on the matter.

While no one can predict the outcome, Abromowitz said government has had success in the past.

Tucson won about 40 eminent domain cases while expanding Speedway Boulevard during the 1990s, he said.

In 1996, regents allowed UA to force three East Sixth Street property owners to sell their property for a future parking lot.

Other entities have also used eminent domain in recent years, but weren't as successful.

Last month, city council members withdrew the authority they gave to begin the eminent domain process against the Flowing Wells Irrigation District.

In 2000, the Tanque Verde district bought the East Side EmKay Ranch with plans to build the district's first high school. But the Tucson Unified School District sued, challenging Tanque Verde and, eventually, construction was halted.

Abromowitz said that in most cases, entities try to negotiate settlements before going to court, but property value opinions get in the way.

"It's a myth to believe that just because the government makes an offer it's correct," he said. "Unfortunately, people are intimidated and don't know their rights."

Tucson Citizen: www.tucsoncitizen.com