Eminent domain clouds debate of Appleton West plan: Appleton WI Post-Crescent, 2/21/07

Homeowners dig in to keep properties near high school

By Steve Wideman

Mayor Tim Hanna said using eminent domain to take properties needed for school facilities expansion is not a land-use issue, but a decision best left to school district officials.

Land use and eminent domain are naturally intertwined, said Ald. Jeff Jirschele, a member of the city Plan Commission.

Jirschele told 120 people attending Tuesday’s second public input session on plans to buy and demolish 19 homes on N. Mason Street to make way for a new football field, track and other outdoor athletic facilities at Appleton West High School that eminent domain is a valid issue for the commission to debate.

“We can sit back as a commission and say we are not going to address it, but (eminent domain) is a land-use issue,” Jirschele said.

The commission is expected Monday to consider approval of a $5.5 million conceptual plan by the West Terror Backers athletic boosters to buy the 19 homes.

At least four of the homeowners are opposed to selling their properties and have signed easements that their attorney said leaves eminent domain as the only alternative to obtain those properties.

Eminent domain is a legal process by which a unit of government can take private property, with compensation to the property owners.

Jirschele grilled school district officials during Tuesday’s public input meeting in hopes of gaining a pledge whether or not the district would use eminent domain if necessary to obtain all 19 properties.

Deputy Supt. Lee Allinger said that is a question left up to future school boards.

“The Board of Education controls that decision. The board has had no official conversations on eminent domain,” Allinger said.

That puts a big responsibility on the Plan Commission during next week’s meeting, and, assuming commission approval of the concept plan, for the Common Council on March 7, Jirschele said.

“If the commission and council approve this concept plan, it really is with the tacit understanding that the only way for this project to go forward is for properties of people in Appleton to be taken,” Jirschele said. “I don’t think the people know that (eminent domain) is still on the table.”

The possible use of eminent domain and lingering questions over options to using the West site for the athletic facilities expansion dominated comments Tuesday.

The meeting took place a week after the city released an 18-page report detailing answers to frequently asked questions about the project.

Tuesday’s session offered little in the way of new information for people on both sides of the issue, including the 19 N. Mason Street homeowners who likely face additional months of waiting before final decisions are made on the project by school and city officials.

“As the meetings come up, we try to attend them. It can be tiring,” said Deb Dedman, 803 N. Mason St., who isn’t opposed to the need for better athletic facilities for West, but doesn’t want to sell her home.

But Dedman said her passion to keep her home and find a new place for the West athletic complex keeps her going.

“I expect as long as they scheduled meetings I’ll be attending those meetings, but there is really no way to look to the future,” Dedman said.

For Gene Hoks, whose home at 513 N. Mason St. has been dropped from the project needs, the endless meetings are no problem.

“The meetings are still important to me because this is my neighborhood, these are my neighbors and they don’t want to sell,” Hoks said.

Appleton WI Post-Crescent: http://www.postcrescent.com