City's eminent domain move reaches court: Princeton (MN) Union Eagle, 7/13/06

By Joel Stottrup

A land-condemnation hearing continues in court in Milaca [MN] today (Thursday) regarding property the city of Princeton wants easements on for extending sewer and water mains.

It appears there are about 10 parcels the city is still seeking easements for on the city’s west edge after a few landowners settled with the city.

Property owners named on the eminent domain petition from the city are Robert W. and Madelyn N. Soule, New Life Christian Center, Scott J. and Paula J. Schmidt, Paul C. and Susan G. Walker, Matthew J. Walker, Robert M. and Shearon D. Pontious, Michael F. and Toni J. Williams, Jane E. Odgers, Frank D. Simon Jr., Carol Simon, and Gale D. and Dennis M. Hatch.

Some banks and limited liability partnerships, as well as United Power Association, are also listed involved in some of the titles.

The City Council declared on March 10, 2005, that it would go through eminent domain, also known as condemnation proceedings, if it had to in order to acquire the easements.

Eminent domain allows units of government to force an owner to sell their land or grant an easement if the purpose meets the law.

Eminent domain has been a controversial subject because of the forced method and because of some cases of property owners saying the amount of compensation was too low for the value of the land.

The big push for the city wanting the easements came when Solid Ground Development more than two years ago proposed putting in a housing development called Heritage Village on about 200 acres.

It actually was originally called Lakes of Heritage Village and the shortening of the name was one of the many changes during the proposal process. The last visible hang-up in the 519-unit proposal was over the value of what Solid Ground was willing to give as part of a park dedication fee. Solid Ground claimed the city was asking too much.

The city annexed the 200 acres in increments and after about two years of wrangling between Solid Ground and the City Council about requirements, Solid Ground placed the proposal on hold early this year.

City Administrator Mark Karnowski told the council last spring the city should still get the land easements before any laws are changed that would make it more difficult.

The Minnesota Legislature did alter some language in the 2006 session in the state’s eminent domain law. Landowner Odgers noted that the city’s move to proceed with eminent domain in court took place before Gov. Pawlenty signed the bill.

Even without Heritage Village needing the city sewer and water now or later, there is other developable property the mains could serve.

The hearings are being presided over by Seventh Judicial District Judge James Ruble.

The first hearing was June 28 and two questions were asked that day for Ruble to decide.

One is whether the city’s petition for the eminent domain proceedings meets the purpose allowed under law, and the second is whether the city is entitled to immediate possession upon 90 days after the city’s notification that it would be asking the court to grant the easements for the amount of money the city is offering.

The 90-day period would end late this month, according to the city’s consulting attorney for civil law cases, Richard Schieffer.

The questions put to Ruble were not decided at the June 28 hearing.

Schieffer said last week the offering amount will not be determined until three land commissioners determine the value of the land. The judge will appoint those commissioners.

Mike Nielson from WSB and Associates, the city’s consulting engineer for the sewer and water main extension, was a witness for the city at the June 28 hearing.

The city had three exhibits at the hearing.

One was an aerial photo of the city, the second was an outline of the 1,800 acres that would be served by the water mains, and the third was a council’s resolution.

The water mains would be a little more than three-fourths mile long, Schieffer said.

Schieffer, who has dealt with many eminent domain proceedings during his career as an attorney, laid out the basics of how it works.

If the judge rules that the petitioner (the city) has met the rules, the judge appoints the three land commissioners and three alternates.

“The commissioners kind of take over from there,” Schieffer said.

The land commissioners’ first meeting is within 10 days of the judge’s order and the meeting is open to all involved.

The second meeting of the commissioners is at the location of the “improvement,” in this case where the mains would be extended, Schieffer said.

This meeting at the site is called a viewing, according to Schieffer, and the purpose is to walk the site and get a view of the involved property.

If any property owner or the city disagrees with the price the commissioners decide, either can petition the decision back to the court, said Schieffer. Then there is a jury trial.

If either party is dissatisfied with the jury’s findings, they can appeal it to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

“It could be a long process and there are a lot of checks and balances,” Schieffer said.

Schieffer called eminent domain an unusual and “quite technical” procedure for most lawyers.

“It should be that way, because you’re taking an interest in someone’s land so you must follow the statutes,” Schieffer said. “And I like to do it that way.”

Landowner Odgers said she thinks the concerns of the landowners who have not come to an agreement with the city on the eminent domain action is this:

“The reason to go forward [with the sewer and water main extension] doesn’t exist at this time because Heritage Village is on hold and the landowners are not in agreement with the amount the city is offering, and they are concerned with the assessment.”

Odgers explained how property owners deemed to benefit from the water and sewer mains running past them would be assessed.

The Odgers property the city wants an easement on is where her home sits, not her dental office on the west end of the property. Her home is surrounded by evergreens and she said she doesn’t want to lose any of them. The easement would be 33 feet wide and 1,000 feet long.

She also noted that 33 feet of easement is being sought across from her easement, meaning the city wants a 66-foot wide easement, which is the width for a road.

The City Council said it isn’t planning on a road now but wants the ability to have one someday along the easement.

Odgers also said that she feels what she is being offered for her easement is below the market price.

Princeton Union Eagle: http://www.unioneagle.com