Eminent domain discussed by council
By Robert Willams
A lack of agreement from particular residents on Townline Road continued discussions on easements, an issue that has been going on far too long for city officials. ¶ While residents on the west side of the road have accepted the easements and are ready to proceed, some residents on the east side are continuing discussions with the city through an attorney. ¶ “Basically, they want the city to repair any damage to the fences and I just don’t think that it is something the city wants to sign up for, to say, ‘yes, we automatically will,’” said city attorney Thomas Winters. “We have no idea where they’re going to put their fence or the quality of the fence. With the rest of them, we put where the fence was going to run so they can place their fence outside of the right-of-way.”
According to city clerk/treasurer Julie Lammers, the residents in question noted they have to repair an existing fence every year and so from now forward they would want the city to repair it every year.
“If we damage their fence outside of our new right-of-way, I would assume we would pay for it. It’s on our road right-of-way. To repair the old fence, the two don’t go hand-in-hand. We need to make it a right-of-way. That’s why we are acquiring it. There are parts of it that are almost on the shoulder of the road.”Bruce Albright, Vergas City council member
Earlier this summer, it appeared all parties had come to an agreement, but that has changed recently.
“The people on the west side have all signed; it’s the east side where we have a problem,” said Albright. “We’ve tried to make this work a number of different ways.”
One of the landowners on the west side of the road has already told the city he was anxious to see the right-of-way stake to build a new fence on the line, according to Albright.
Winters plans to contact the attorney representing the east side complainant with a sign it or don’t sign it ultimatum.
“I don’t want to keep going back-and-forth with it; either they agree to it or they don’t,” Winters said.
The project has been a topic of multiple discussions over the past two years including agreements with Hobart Township, as a portion of the road is in city limits and another section in the township.
The township takes care of grading and gravel work in the summer and the city tends to snow removal. The entities share costs based on how much of the road each entity owns. Vergas owns 3/4 of the road, while Hobart Township owns 1/4.
Landowners have also expressed concerns over assessments on having the road paved at some point in the future. Both township and city officials have stated they do not foresee paving the road in the near future.
The city council reviewed proposed easement costs for Townline Road back in February.
Multiple easement offers have been made since. Initial offers in March were declined by residents. Collectively, the landowners felt that the value set for agricultural land ($2,900/acre) was too low. Short of going to court, Albright felt if the agricultural land values were doubled ($5,800/ac.), the city might get the easements signed voluntarily, which would still cost less than the eminent domain option.
The council approved the Streets-Sidewalks and Yard Waste Committee’s proposal to double the agricultural rate to $5,800/acre in an effort to settle the issue in June.
In August, Winters announced agreements had been reached with landowners. The total easements for the properties was just under $10,000.
In October. Lammers reported all affected landowners along Townline Road verbally agreed to signing the necessary easements to acquire 33-feet of right-of-way on each side of the section line and the Streets committee recommended to the council to have Widseth Engineering stake the right-of-way once the easements were signed and checks issued.
“We’ve gone around and around; I’ve been on the council two years and we were talking about this when I started and here we are two years later and still talking about it,” said Albright.
Patience is beginning to wear a little thin on the ongoing legal negotiations and Albright proposed further proceedings if necessary.
“I think, if by the December meeting, if they haven’t signed, then the next step, we have the authority to do, in my opinion, is to use eminent domain or condemnation on the land,” Albright said.
Further proceedings will cause further delays.
“Typically, condemnation proceedings would cause the issue to begin again at ground zero,” Albright said.
The road became a city road by default due to years of public use and city maintenance. The easements are needed so the city crews can legally cut brush and remove other hazards that impede the road right of way.
Discussions began when a city crew member tried to cut branches from the ditch area and a landowner opened discussion on having the city purchase a property easement for such maintenance. Residents agreed to allow brush to be cut that is encroaching on the gravel surface while easements are being worked out.
There are a few more weeks to actually work that out. The next city council meeting will be held Tuesday, Dec. 13.