Settlement OK'd in eminent domain case: Boston MA Globe, 10/25/07

Family to receive $2.8m for farm

By Melissa Beecher

A seven-year battle is over after the Groton-Dunstable Regional School Committee approved a $2.8 million settlement and agreed to drop any further appeals on an eminent domain case that took a former family farm for the site of the new regional high school.

The payment is in addition to a $1.8 million purchase price the board made for the 177-acre Casella family property in 2001.

"The Casellas were paid an unfair price for the land by the School Department, and when a jury agreed, they filed an appeal," said George McLaughlin III, the attorney from Boston-based McLaughlin Brothers who specializes in eminent domain and represents the three Casella families.

"After the school district lost two times, they have wisely decided to stop the bleeding," McLaughlin said. "It has been a long time coming."

Cindy Barrett, chairwoman of School Committee, said the decision was ultimately a financial one.

"It took two years for our first appeal to be heard," said Barrett. "Even though we still believe there is a valid reason to clarify the expert testimony, we had to take into account how much per month would be accrued due to interest."

Superintendent Alan Genovese concurred with the board's vote.

"Even if we won the appeal, all it meant is that . . . we would start over from scratch. This could have gone on for another 20 years," said Genovese.

"We've reached the point where we need to put this behind us," he said.

The vote to drop the case was 6 to 0, with School Committee member Charles McKinney abstaining. McKinney has abstained from all votes regarding the Casellas because he was a friend and neighbor of theirs.

The vote means the district will issue a $2.5 million bond, which was approved by Groton and Dunstable's Town Meetings in 2005. The remainder of the balance will be found in the High School Land Acquisition Fund, where $198,000 will be drawn, and High School Building Fund, where $135,000 will be used.

Genovese said the borrowing would not have a financial impact on taxpayers until fiscal 2009. No money will come from the district's operating budgets.

The settlement concludes a saga that began in 2000, when the school district voted to take the Casella land on Chicopee Row for $1.8 million. The schools had been reviewing several parcels, but after topography testing, determined the Casella farm was the only property of its size in either community that could accommodate a new high school.

The Casellas sued, claiming the district significantly undervalued the land, which they believed should have been sold for $4.8 million. While the case was in the courts, the high school was built. It opened in 2003. The $36 million project took advantage of the School Building Assistance Funding, receiving 67 percent state aid reimbursements, school officials said.

The eminent domain case went to trial in June 2005 and a jury determined the value of the property was $4.1 million. The district was instructed to pay the difference.

The school district appealed that decision, saying that the expert testimony of two law firms - one of which gave a high valuation of the land - should not have been admissible in court. The appeals court rejected this argument in August.

At that time, the district was ordered to pay the original $2.5 million plus accrued interest, which is approximately $250,000.

In a prepared statement, school district leaders said that the director of business and finance, Timothy Sheehan, would be working to expedite the bonding process so the settlement could be paid "as quickly as possible."

Genovese said he believes that it worked out for the district in the end. Given escalating construction costs over the last five years and the moratorium of state aid for school building projects, the high school project continues to make financial sense, he said.

"It's unfortunate that this had to go through the eminent domain taking, but the fact remains that we have a beautiful new school in a great location," said Genovese. "If you go back to that point in time, it was the right thing to do."

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