Officials accused of trying to skirt new law: Des Moines IA Register, 9/7/07

Some Osceola landowners believe lake expansion backers have changed their tactics to get around eminent domain rules

By Jason Clayworth

The need for water In Osceola IA] is clashing with Iowa's newly enhanced landowner rights law.

If water officials win, a new lake about five miles north of Osceola will gobble up about 2,400 acres, displacing roughly 30 property owners.

But if landowners succeed, some Clarke County and Osceola officials fear it could hamper future growth and cause major businesses like a proposed biodiesel plant in Osceola to locate elsewhere.

At the heart of the clash is a year-old Iowa law that makes it more difficult for government to obtain property for the public good. Iowa law now prohibits government from acquiring private land under a concept known as eminent domain for recreational purposes.

"There is a conflict, so now the question is how do we act as a community that's trying to get a water supply," Osceola City Administrator Ralph Lesko said.

Clarke County Supervisor Jack Cooley said the project is essential for the well-being of the area.

Lake recreation, which qualifies for federal grant money, was once part of lake plan but because of Iowa's strengthened eminent domain law, Clarke County officials are concentrating on their main objective: water.

The change in focus has prompted residents and a few state legislators to accuse planners of attempting to skirt the law.

"We've got water engineers, in my layman's opinion, that are being creative and innovative and baiting and switching and shell gaming," Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, a Wilton Republican, said Thursday while standing with about 20 landowners fighting the lake project.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2005 reaffirmed that government could force the sale of private property for economic development reasons. In reaction, Iowa legislators tightened Iowa's law and last year overrode former Gov. Tom Vilsack's veto of the bill.

Kaufmann and Rep. Jodi Tymeson, a Winterset Republican, vowed Thursday to seek more changes in the law to help families that face eminent domain. One idea is forcing governments to pay for the legal defense of the owners of the land they want to take.

"Every politician, and there's 150 of us up there, and I will guarantee you that every one of us will tell you that we stick up for the little guy. In January, we're going to ask them to remember this scene," Kaufmann said while pointing to rolling hills covered with hundreds of acres of corn.

Iowa House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Des Moines Democrat, said he has concerns about Kaufmann's idea.

"If there's a problem with people skirting the law on eminent domain, then we need to fix the law, but my initial reaction is just putting more money in lawyers' pockets is not necessarily a substantive solution," McCarthy said.

Residents who face losing their land said Thursday that it's possible they will hire an attorney and together fight to keep their property. Many said they feel the process violates the intent of Iowa's eminent domain law.

"It is our little piece of the American dream, and they want to take it away," an emotional Cindy Sanford said of the 171-acre farm her family has owned for almost 20 years.

Des Moines IA Register: http://desmoinesregister.com