The Preston City Council decided at its meeting Tuesday, Feb. 20, to allow six months to study a potential alternative route for the Forestville Trail and appointed a council member to be in on the project negotiations before considering invoking eminent domain.
Councilman Bob Sauer agreed to be the representative from the council to work with the Ristau and Snyder families during negotiations with David Joerg, as well as Dale Wille (a semi-retired landscape architect) from Spring Valley, who are working the trail project, which includes completing a bike trail from Preston to Forestville State Park.
Working for trail progress
Joerg told the council that in order for the trail to proceed and receive more funding from the legislature, the final two proper-ties - owned by Vernon and Kay Ristau and by John and Bernadette Snyder - out of 21 will need to be acquired. He noted that the legislature does not want to grant the money for a trail that may not happen because all of the property hasn't been acquired.
He approached the council and asked that they would invoke the authority of eminent domain - the inherent power of the state to seize (condemn) property for a public reason (for public use) - in order to acquire the property because he feels that he has done everything in his power to negotiate with the landowners. "I have done it (try to negotiate) to the best of my ability," Joerg said. "I don't know where to go from here before eminent domain."
"We would love to go around these folks," he said. "But there is no reasonable alternative."
Joerg said he has consulted with the state engineer, and the same conclusion was reached. "I have been trying desperately with the Ristaus and the Snyders to put this matter behind us," he said.
"I have always considered eminent domain as the last resort," Joerg said. "After trying for years to deal with these people, we don't have any choice." He noted that he has repeatedly tried to contact the Ristaus, but no letters or phone calls were answered.
Joerg said he would like to ask the council, reluctantly, for eminent domain authority. He noted that even if he was granted the authority, he would still go out and try to negotiate with the property owners to try to not let it go to court.
"I would try to reach an agreement without using it (eminent domain) - even though I would have the authority."
He noted that it would be costly for the property owners to fight the eminent domain authority because of lawyer fees to go to court.
"Eminent domain has been on the books since the 1850s," Joerg explained. "It has been around since the start of the state's constitution."
Sauer asked Joerg if the path of the bike trail could still be changed if there was, by chance, an alternative route and there was a mutual agreement. Joerg said that the trail could still be shifted and changed if that was the case.
Sauer also asked Joerg why he chose to approach the Preston City Council instead of the Joint Powers cities - Fountain, Wykoff, Spring Valley, Ostander, Preston and Chatfield.
Joerg said he would have to approach every city council of each city to get its consent. He also mentioned he chose the Preston Council because he believes it is the city that will receive the most benefits economically from the trail.
Vern Ristau, owner of one of the properties sought, addressed the council about why he doesn't want to sell.
"I don't understand it," he said. "That land has been in my family for 64 years and we have paid taxes on it; it isn't right for other people to have more of a say in it than we do."
He mentioned that the current plans would block access to his field, and create other problems. "I don't feel it is right at all for us to give up land," Ristau said.
His wife, Kay Ristau, also addressed the council. She said that she realizes this isn't the current council's problem and that the issue was brought up with another council in the past. "I ask that it gets taken back to the Joint Powers," she said. "Let everyone be in on the decision."
"This is the land that we like to hunt and fish on," Kay Ristau said. "We bought it for that reason."
John Snyder, the other owner of the properties sought, also spoke to the council on his family's behalf. "We have the right as land owners to privacy," he said. "Nine years ago I was approached, and told from the start where the trail had to go. There was no mention of alternatives, and I was threatened with eminent domain."
"I don't like being threatened," Snyder said. "Treat us with respect. That land is not railroad right-of-way; that is land the family enjoys."
Snyder mentioned that a problem he has is that the trail is not a necessity; it is merely for recreational purposes. He mentioned that he doesn't have anything against the city of Preston.
"Preston is our town too," he said. "The people (of Preston) want to enjoy their own backyards as much as we do."
"This country was built on rights and freedoms," he said. "What is happening to ours."
Snyder stated that he believes there are other alternatives out there for the trail. "There is a better answer than using eminent domain," he said.
Councilman David Harrison said that the council is asking the property owners what it can do now to make this work. Snyder said it would help if people for the trail learned to work with the property owners. "We've been fighting it because of the way they have been running over everybody."
Arlynn Hovey, who lives close to Forestville, told the council that he finds it hard to understand the city coming and taking the land. "This is not a need, it is a want," he said. "That is why I have a problem with it."
Former council member Steve Knoepke said a few words to the council. "I am here for the taxpayers," he said. "I think this is the wrong application of eminent domain, and I fear that a lot of tax money will be spent here that could be put to better use.
"The monetary figure here is not the issue; they don't want to sell it," Knoepke said. "If it was my land, I wouldn't feel a heck of a lot different."
Knoepke said he worries that if the council granted eminent domain, it would be setting a precedent for future cases. "If a city has this law, where do you stop, who is the next target?" he said.
"I am asking that you employ other cities involved," Knoepke stated. "Ask them if they want to gamble like this."
Council member Heath Mensink mentioned that in the past - in October 2005, when dealing with this same Forestville Trail issue - the council had decided that it wanted to use eminent domain as a last resort.
Snyder was asked by Mayor Kurt Reicks if he would be willing to negotiate still, and he said that he would be willing to do so.
Ristau, when asked the same question, said he would like to have the bike trail completely go around his land, but said if an alternative was found, "it would have to be on our terms." Members of the Ristau family made it clear that they did not trust Joerg, and they did not want to have any further negotiations with him.
"I would like to see a negotiation before going to eminent domain," Reicks said.
"Get Mr. Wille more involved," Ristau said. "He is easier to discuss it with and work with."
Both property owners, the Ristaus and Snyders agreed that they would be willing to work with Wille, and Sauer, as the council representative, over a six month period to study alter-natives that would appeal to all parties.
"It's a good start," Snyder said.
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