Eminent domain concerns at a head: Ft Collins CO Coloradoan, 12/15/06

N. College businesses worry city is set to resort to measure

By Kevin Darst

Despite assurances to the contrary, Fort Collins seems ready to take private property on North College Avenue to aid in the area's first major retail project.

That's vexing to North College business owners who say the city's assurances they would use eminent domain as a last resort helped smooth passage of the redevelopment plan. The area desperately needs those projects, but business owners are worried they could be the next to lose property under an eminent domain taking.

"The developer is waiting for the city to do their work for them," said Janet Haas, who owns North College Motors, which sits on the northeast corner of North College Avenue and East Willox Lane.

At issue is a rumored King Soopers supermarket northeast of North College and Willox. Developers haven't submitted anything official, though the project might be the worst-kept secret in the area, with a reference to it showing up last week on a power-point slide for City Council.

If built, the supermarket would trigger an expansion of the North College-Willox intersection, including added turn lanes, bike lanes and sidewalks. Those improvements would push North College and Willox onto North College Motors' property, coming within 5 feet of the dealer's door and virtually eliminating space for the dealership's cars.

North College Motors also could lose its prime street-front for a fraction of the price paid for a restaurant property immediately north of the dealership. An initial city appraisal pegged the dealership's land value at $8.24 a square foot, nearly $160,000 for the property and about one-sixth what developers paid nearly two years ago when they contracted to buy Pobre Pancho's restaurant and property.

The restaurant still is open.

Under eminent domain, the city offers fair market value for the property it needs for the infrastructure project. If the property owner won't agree to sell or thinks the offer is too low, the two sides go to a special court, where a judge makes the decision.

An October memo to City Manager Darin Atteberry from Greg Byrne, the city’s director of cultural, planning and environmental services, recommended the city acquire the property through condemnation instead of asking the developer to buy it.

That was based, in part, on Haas’ refusal to let city appraisers on the property for the initial appraisal.

Atteberry said Thursday he hasn’t decided whether to accept Byrne’s recommendation.

“We are always going to use eminent domain as a last resort,” Atteberry said. “Rarely in our history have we ever used eminent domain and when we do we’re very, very careful. Our interest is to minimize any kind of take on the property owner.”

City Council probably would have to approve an eminent domain taking in this case, according to the memo.

“I think there was some premature discussion that was not as open as it should have been,” said council member Karen Weitkunat. “I truly believe City Council will be extremely sensitive to this discussion.”

She said some actions so far have shown “great insensitivity.”

Ben Manvel, the council member who represents the North College area, could not be reached for comment.

Though an urban renewal plan for North College adopted two years ago calls for “good faith negotiations” by the developer and the property owner before the city uses eminent domain, Mike Kronenberger, who manages North College Motors, said he’s never received an offer for the property.

Jim Smith, who owns the property northeast of North College and Willox slated for King Soopers, did not return a call seeking comment.

At a meeting Thursday morning, business owners expressed concern at what they saw as the city’s quick move to the eminent domain route.

“We don’t have good feelings about the intentions,” said Ron Lautzenheiser, a member of the citizen advisory group that advises the urban renewal authority on North College matters. Lautzenheiser owns Grease Monkey and Big O Tire on North College.

The city routinely uses eminent domain, as allowed by law, when it builds streets and other infrastructure projects. But officials acknowledge those takings rarely have the impact this one would have.

Business owners argue the improvements wouldn’t be necessary without the supermarket, making any condemnation a handout to the developer.

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