City considers eminent domain for Sutton Creek: Norman OK Transcript, 1/21/07

By Carol L. Cole

The use of eminent domain could be the next step in the battle to protect Sutton Urban Wilderness Park [SUWP] from a proposed housing development that experts have said could harm wildlife in the park.

Norman city councilmembers will consider at their regular meeting Tuesday a resolution authorizing filing of a condemnation action for acquiring the proposed 53-acre Sutton Creek Addition adjacent to the west of SUWP.

“As of this date, the city has been unable to purchase the property and the city’s offer has been deemed rejected for purposes of receiving permission to initiate proceedings of eminent domain,” reads the memo from the city’s legal department to councilmembers. “The city will continue to negotiate with the property owners in an attempt to acquire the property without the necessity of court action.”

Developers John Mertens and Doug Greeson have proposed the about 53-acre, 125 lot Sutton Creek Addition south of Rock Creek Road, west of SUWP and east of the IOOF Cemetery. It was original proposed as a 134-lot Planned Unit Development.

The city’s Greenbelt Commission studied the impact the development could have on the park in an extensive three-month, 306-page study. It was presented in a council meeting Nov. 28.

Various experts in wildlife and environmental concerns strongly recommended to the Greenbelt Commission that the addition not be built because it would adversely impact SUWP by diminishing the habitat and reducing the animal and bird populations.

As a result, Greenbelt Commission members unanimously recommended the council seek to purchase the entire 53 acres or at the minimum, the land east of the riparian area that runs north and south through the property for a buffer for the park.

The preliminary plat was revamped by developers from a Planned Unit Development or PUD to single family residential after it was discovered that the land was allegedly never assigned a zoning designation after it was annexed into the city limits. That would mean the property defaulted to an R-1 or single residential zoning and would not need to go before council to be rezoned.

It had been thought that the land was zoned A-2 or agricultural.

(1/24/07) Council votes to pursue Sutton Creek eminent domain

A resolution to authorize use of eminent domain for the city to acquire the controversial 53-acre Sutton Creek addition was approved by a split 8-1 vote of the Norman city council at its regular Tuesday meeting.

The 125-lot proposed Sutton Creek development is west of Sutton Urban Wilderness Park and experts have said the housing development would negatively impact the park and diminish the wildlife population.

Eight councilmembers expressed support to provide the buffer for the wilderness park. They cited strong, across-the-board public support, with more than 800 citizens protesting the development.

Voting “aye” were councilmembers Bob Thompson, Richard Stawicki, Jim Stanley, Cindy Rosenthal, Rachel Butler, Doug Cubberley, Dan Quinn and Mayor Harold Haralson. Councilmember David Hopper cast the “nay” vote.

“Most folks know I have been an opponent of eminent domain,” Stawicki said. “This is the one case … I think it serves a clear public purpose.”

Butler said none of the councilmembers had considered the use of eminent domain lightly.

“But if we let it go by, it’s gone,” she said of Sutton Urban Wilderness Park. “I’m not willing to do that.”

Thompson said it was a situation where the public came to the council “and continues to come to us.”

“There is not guesswork. This is very, very important to the city of Norman,” he said.

Hopper said he was aware of the groundswell of support in the community.

“But I am against using the city’s process of condemnation,” Hopper said. “I think this is playing games with the process.”

City Attorney Jeff Bryant said before the vote that the city had the Sutton Creek land appraised and had made offers as late as Friday to developers John Mertens and Doug Greeson.

“But we kind of got to a point where we thought we weren’t moving forward any more,” Bryant said.

The city’s appraisal came back at $627,000. However, the developers wanted a purchase price of $1.9 million.

“It is clear that we are far apart,” said Ward 4 councilmember Cindy Rosenthal. “I think this is a unique situation and a unique property. … There is enormous support for us to do this.”

Bryant said the process is outlined in a state statute.

The property will be appraised for the court and the city would have the opportunity to take the property for that price, he said.

If the developers feel that the court’s appraised price is not the fair market value, they can send the matter to a jury trial.

Developers’ attorney Harold Heiple objected to the eminent domain resolution.

He said he believed the city had a faulty appraisal, based on single-family residential zoning.

“I believe the city has not negotiated in good faith,” Heiple said.

He asked that the city reject or postpone the resolution in order to consider the preliminary plat and to consider acquiring only part of the property.

But that didn’t happen.

Ward 7 councilmember Doug Cubberley took exception to the allegation that the city was playing games.

“Our appraisal does not support their blue sky,” he said. “We will let the court determine a fair price.”

Cubberley said approving the preliminary plat would allow the developers to start moving dirt.

“Why should we pay for this extra,” he said. “We will let the court determine a fair price.”

Mayor Harold Haralson said he had great respect for the person who did the city’s appraisal.

“I believe it’s reasonable,” Haralson said.

Several audience members thanked the council after the vote.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you …,” said David Miller, representing the Red Earth chapter of the Sierra Club, who offered $500 personally to contribute to the city’s purchase price.

Greenbelt Commission chairwomen Diane Fitzsimmons said after the vote that she would like the city to pursue purchasing the Sutton Urban Wilderness Park, which is leased for about the next 75 years from the state.

Rosenthal said the city is hopeful that the state might give the park to the city as part of its Centennial celebration.

“It’s a wonderful moment in time to try to convince the state,” she said.

Norman OK Transcript: http://www.normantranscript.com