Eminent domain possible in farm buyout: Des Moines (IA) Register, 7/16/05

Pleasant Hill officials are ready to force the sale of a family's land for a school expansion

By Amanda O'Toole

The farm plot near Northeast 80th Street and Iowa Highway 163 has been in Jean Schmidt's family for more than 80 years.

Her father bought the land about 50 years ago. Before that, great-aunts and great-uncles raised hogs and chickens and grew corn and soybeans.

Schmidt, 69, didn't know much about the phrase "eminent domain" until a few weeks ago.

"I'd sort of heard of it," she said. "I found out it means you really don't have any rights."

Pleasant Hill city leaders are prepared to legally take Schmidt's 130 acres so Southeast Polk school officials can put up a new building to ease the district's growing pains. The process, called eminent domain, means that government has the power to force land sales when property is considered necessary for public improvements. The U.S. Supreme Court broadened that power last month to let cities seize property for private development.

The law is the law. Schmidt knows that.

All that's left is to put a price on her family's legacy, and that's where the real disagreement lies. Schmidt says the land is worth $1.5 million. City officials have been told the figure is closer to $860,000. They will prepare what will be the final offer.

"It's like a slap in the face," Schmidt said. "This was my retirement package."

School officials first approached Schmidt last fall. They wanted 42 acres.

"It's all about location, location, location," said Southeast Polk Superintendent Tom Downs. "This isn't about picking on one family farmer."

Schmidt was mulling the offer when city leaders stepped in and said they wanted to buy the entire farm.

Pleasant Hill would sell about 10 acres to the school district. About 30 acres would be leased to the schools for a parking lot. A sports complex and park are planned for the remaining 90 acres. The complex and park would share a parking lot with the new high school. A bond referendum is scheduled for February.

Enrollment in Southeast Polk schools has steadily increased for the past decade. It is the 14th-largest district in the state. The high school, built in 1963, was designed for 1,000 students. Enrollment topped 1,350 last year, and districtwide numbers are expected to grow by at least 200 each of the next five years.

"They could find other land," Schmidt said.

School officials said they looked elsewhere, but the Schmidt farm is perfect, in part because of its access to city services.

Downs said school and city officials are sensitive to Schmidt and her family's history, but the move makes economic sense for the community as a whole - the definition of eminent domain.

City officials will not divulge how much they are willing to pay, but the offer is more than $860,000, City Administrator Bob Fagan said.

"We hope we don't have to use eminent domain," he said.

Downs points out that Schmidt intended to eventually sell the property.

But Schmidt said she wanted to make that decision on her own time.

"In 1963, the state came in and took out the farmhouse, the hog house, the chicken house and the water tower to build the highway," Schmidt said. "It was very upsetting to my father to have that all wiped out.

"And this has become very upsetting to me."

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