Weits ready to fight eminent domain: Exeter NH News-Letter, 1/23/07

By Peg Warner

The lawyer for a couple facing the potential loss of their property for a new high school said the Weit family has already donated land to the public good and shouldn't be forced to surrender more.

Michael Weit's grandmother donated what is now Leo Landroche Field, attorney Christopher Boldt said last week, suggesting school officials look for a way around a prohibition on developing that land instead of trying to take the adjacent property, where Weit was raised and on which his children are the fourth generation to grow up. The family members said they still ride horses on the land, and neighbors say they use it for recreation.

"This is taking their home," said Boldt to the School Board. "This is part of their home."

The current proposal, on which voters will cast ballots in March, calls for a new high school on 14 undeveloped acres beside Landroche Field. Weit and his wife, Debra Hale, have refused to sell their land and vigorously rejected the notion of losing it through eminent domain. The School Board has yet to decide whether to pursue that option.

"We're having to defend hearth and home," said Boldt, who promised a legal battle if the district tries to take the land. "We hope they will back away."

The board has to do what it deems best for the district, said Chairman Christopher Hawkins, adding the Weit property has "some very significant advantages," particularly its location beside Landroche Field and near the elementary school.

"Whether we're right or wrong is something for the voters to decide, and we accept that," he said.

School officials pointed to the building restriction on Landroche Field - a condition of federal funding when it was developed into recreation fields in the 1970s - as a reason they haven't looked to that parcel as a school site.

But in public forums on the building plan, they've indicated a willingness to look into ways to circumvent the restriction. Boldt said repaying the $100,000 the town received in federal money could allow the district to use it as the site of the new school.

Boldt also said the money the district is proposing to use to buy the land is not enough in the current real estate market to acquire the Weit parcel and the 13-acre Carpenter property across the road, where the plan calls for new playing fields. The Carpenters have been negotiating with the school district.

The district has about $1 million in a capital reserve fund, and officials have pointed to another $650,000 already in hand or accessible to the district in open space funds and development impact fees. Boldt said school leaders were being "disingenuous" by suggesting the land could be acquired for that amount.

Hawkins said the district could ask voters to approve additional funding in later years if the price of the land exceeded the district's current funding.

Boldt said his clients are supporting another article on the warrant, the lease-purchase of two portable classroom buildings, as a "step-wise" approach.

"It affords you time to find the ideal, with a willing buyer and a willing seller," Boldt said.

But Hawkins said the request was intended to address space needs that already exist, not a long-term solution, and that portable classrooms wouldn't address physical problems with the existing facility.

The overall school proposal has an estimated cost of about $20 million, but voters this year will decide only preliminary aspects of it in two questions on the warrant - the land acquisition and the bonding of $1.28 million for architectural and engineering costs - saving a decision on funding the actual construction for a later year.

Exeter NH News-Letter: http://www.seacoastonline.com/news/exeter