The eminent domain case between the city of Blackwater and several property owners in the city went to trial Monday in Cooper County Circuit Court. Blackwater city attorney Patrick Cronan presented the city's case by bringing City Clerk Jim Atkinson to testify.
Atkinson began by outlining the city's plans for the property. He said that the old grain elevator near the railroad tracks has been donated to the city. The city is planning to make the elevator the centerpiece of an agriculture museum and farmers' market on the property and surrounding lots. Part of the property claimed by the city is to be used for parking.
Eminent domain is the allocation of private property for public use, such as a highway, park, or military base. The U.S. and Missouri constitutions require that residents whose property is taken be given fair warning and just compensation for their property. If the owners refuse to sell, the government has the right to force them off the property by eminent domain.
When the trial began, there were some inconsistencies regarding the actual defendants still in the case. Cronan claimed that a number of defendants listed in trial documents have settled with the city and asked that their names be stricken from the list.
Basically there are three families left fighting the city's takeover. Michael Root, Sr. and his sons Michael, Jr., and Aaron and Walter and Edna Young are being defended by attorney Thomas Bolling of Marshall. Benjamin Simmons is representing himself and his wife and son's interest in the case.
Bolling contested Atkinson's version of the plans for the park put forth in his testimony. Bolling asked Atkinson about a newspaper article about the proposed annexation in which Blackwater Mayor Bobby Danner was quoted as saying that part of the land will be used for an RV park. Atkinson replied that he had heard discussions about an RV park, but that he was not aware of any specific plans.
Bolling then asked if the city had put together a study of the need for parking at the proposed park. Cronan objected that there was no statute requiring an independent study to determine parking needs before annexing property for a park. Judge Koffman agreed that there was not a law stating that requirement specifically, but that the city is required to show probable cause for the need of all the property it plans to annex.
After much discussion on the way to phrase the question, Atkinson said he was not aware of a plan put together by the city to show that the city needs all of the property it plans to annex in order to properly provide for the needs of the proposed park.
Bolling also asked Atkinson about a black heritage historic district that may have a stake in determining how the land is used. Apparently part of the land the city wants to take over was once the site of a church used by black slaves. The building is gone, but there is still a historic designation on the land. Atkinson said that to his knowledge the city had not taken this into consideration.
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[When the city and the property owners finished their cases, Judge Robert Koffman announced he would review the testimony in court, the cases cited by both sides supporting their positions, and other evidence, then make a decision.]
The question before the judge is whether the city has sufficiently proved the need for eminent domain, the power of a government to obtain land for public use, in the acquisition of land for a city park.
There are three families who hold a number of city lots who are fighting the city's attempt to take the land. The family of Walter Young and the family of Michael Root are represented by Thomas Bolling, and Benjamin Simmons is representing his own family's interest in the case.
City attorney Patrick Cronan briefly took the stand to testify that he had performed title searches on behalf of the city and contacted the property owners in question, offering them payment based on an appraised value by the Cooper County assessor's office.
Bolling did not present any witnesses, but he did ask the judge to throw out the case, saying the city had not sufficiently presented their case.
Koffman took Bolling's objection under advisement, but did not rule on his motion.
Simmons took the stand in his own defense and accused the city of trying to force property owners off their land without the resources to buy it, and Mayor Bobby Danner specifically of trying to promote his own hotel and restaurant business through the addition of the park. He also said he planned to countersue the city.
The longest testimony was by Danner, who was brought to the stand by Cronan to rebut Simmons' testimony.
He testified that city voters had approved a 1/2-cent sales tax for capital improvement, and that the revenue was going to be used by the city for the park. He said the tax was not enough to sufficiently pay for all the park facilities right away, and that parts of the park would be phased in over a number of years.
He also testified that the idea for the park was the result of a survey of city residents, and that the council already had discussed plans for the park before the decision to seek the property by public domain was made, something disputed by Bolling.
In response to cross-examination by Bolling, Danner said that he was not sure if the plans for an RV park were discussed before the ordinance authorizing the city to obtain land was approved by the council. He also denied a newspaper article quoting him to say the land that will be purchased adjacent to his hotel will be used for parking.
After cross examinations were done, Koffman asked the mayor some questions about the city's plans. Danner said the city did not include some land in the middle of the proposed park because there were residences on the land.
When Koffman asked him why the city needed so much land for the park, Danner replied that most of the land is in the flood plain and therefore cannot be used for homes or other purposes, but a park is an acceptable use of the floodplain.
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