• warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.
  • warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.

$80K awarded in condemnation case

County commission decides condemnation case
Members of Johnson County’s Compensation Commission gather at the property of Gary Weinman Friday, Feb. 13, as part of the board’s duties to view the premises before setting a compensation value on land the City of North Liberty will condemn through eminent domain for a future sewer project. (photo by Lori Lindner)

IOWA CITY– The route toward land condemnation took a couple of unexpected turns before its conclusion last Friday.
Ultimately, the county’s Compensation Commission decided that Gary Weinman should be compensated a total of $80,000 for a permanent easement sought by the City of North Liberty.
In the case of Weinman v. the City of North Liberty, Gary Weinman of rural Coralville filed two lawsuits against the city seeking a temporary and a permanent injunction to stop the city from laying a sewer line that would cross the middle of a 5-acre prairie on Weinman’s property. On Tuesday, Feb. 10, Judge Chris Bruns of Iowa’s Sixth Judicial District ruled against the temporary injunction, allowing the city to proceed with the condemnation process.
The next step was to determine the value of the .75-acre strip of land of Weinman’s property required for the project. According to Chapter 6A of Iowa’s eminent domain law, a government entity must compensate landowners at fair market value.
Johnson County has a pool of 28 compensation commissioners with varying backgrounds in real estate, agriculture and businesses such as banking or property management, who are convened in smaller groups to determine property values when a settlement cannot be negotiated between the government entity and the private property owner.
One of the commission’s duties is to view the premises in question.
When the six commissioners and a bevy of engineers and attorneys gathered at Weinman’s property Friday morning, Feb. 13, none were aware that to view the prairie on the north side of the acreage, they would have to traverse several acres of wooded area and a steep ravine to get there.
Deliberation ensued as to whether viewing the prairie was necessary, if there was another route to get there, or if a determination could be based solely on testimony and supporting exhibits from the two parties.
While the commissioners were not in immediate agreement about those issues, they became moot when North Liberty City Administrator Ryan Heiar arranged for the commissioners to be transported across a field directly adjacent to the prairie via land the city recently purchased. A city snowplow cleared a path, and commissioners rode to the fence line in city-owned four-wheel drive trucks so they could view the prairie area before returning to the hearing at the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office.
In early negotiations, North Liberty officials offered Weinman $16,000 for his property, basing the number on the valuation of $30,000 per acre and suggesting that a percentage of full valuation is typically offered in condemnation cases. The city paid full valuation of roughly $30,000 per acre for adjacent agricultural ground owned by Four D’s Acres, LLC, for the future expansion of the city’s wastewater treatment facility; appraised at about three times the state’s average rate for farm land because it also had potential development value. Weinman declined the settlement and proceeded with his petition to stop the condemnation altogether.
At Friday’s compensation hearing, the city was required to present its final monetary offer for Weinman’s land to the county’s commission.
Based on an appraisal conducted by David Passmore of Rally Appraisal, the city revised its value to $27,058 for Friday’s hearing.
After about 30 minutes of oral presentation from city representatives– including lead engineer John Gade of Fox Engineer, and attorney Bob Goodwin, a legal condemnation specialist from Ames hired for the hearing– the commissioners also heard from Weinman’s attorney Richard Pundt.
That’s when things got tense.
Goodwin interjected six times to argue that Pundt’s presentation was a repeat of evidence submitted in the Feb. 5 court hearing on which a ruling had already been made, therefore irrelevant to the question of compensation and immaterial to the commission’s responsibility.
Commissioner Le Ann Dunne reiterated the commission’s purpose.
“I think we’re back at the courthouse, and our job today is to decide compensation. Period, end of story. This is all irrelevant because it’s been decided by the judge; there is no stay,” said Dunne.
Twice, commission members asked both attorneys to stay on point– the value of the property– and to refrain from interrupting or debating each other on the facts of the court hearing.
“Sir, I understand this is a very hot topic right now, and I’m sure this was all presented in court, but we’re just giving him his opportunity to speak. Obviously our job is not to decide what route to take, our job is to decide on compensation,” commissioner Amy Pitlick said to Goodwin.
Weinman was allowed to speak at length about the environmental value of the property, a 30-year old prairie established through a restoration project in partnership with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Weinman said two endangered species use the property for habitat, including the rare Indiana bat that roosts in loose bark trees in the area. A number of those trees would be removed for the sewer project, Weinman noted, and because they typically return to roost in the same nests for years, removing the trees would have lasting damage to the bat colony.
Pundt told the commission he was unable to obtain a professional appraisal from an independent firm due to time constraints, but that he had consulted with a real estate agent/appraiser the morning prior to the hearing who had suggested the amount of $100,000.
After its requisite closed session, the Compensation Commission rendered a decision that Weinman should be compensated at a total of $80,000: $70,000 for the land value, $5,000 for attorney fees, and $5,000 for the city’s temporary easement.
Compensation Commission chairman for the day’s proceedings, real estate professional Verne Folkmann, declined to characterize the commission’s discussion that led to the valuation. The minutes of the hearing become public record and can be obtained through the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office after the report is filed.
Though Weinman’s petition for a permanent injunction against condemnation is still pending in the Sixth Judicial District Court, the city is now allowed to move forward in that action. City Attorney Scott Peterson the city was pleased to complete that step of the process.
“We’re glad we’ve acquired the necessary underground rights and temporary access required to provide municipal services to Liberty High School following Friday’s hearing,” Peterson said. “We would have preferred to come to a voluntary agreement with Dr. Weinman.”
However, Peterson added, the city was “disappointed with the commission’s award of $80,000 to Dr. Weinman– far exceeding the appraised value– instead of basing it on the legal standard for valuing the property and on the evidence presented in the hearing.”
The city and Weinman both have 30 days to appeal the commission’s ruling, but Peterson said Monday he didn’t know what the city would do in that regard.
“In light of this, the city will review its option to appeal the award while continuing to defend against the lawsuit filed by Dr. Weinman in November,” said Peterson. “We will continue to correct the repeated misstatements and misinformation Dr. Weinman and his attorney have made to the media, in court and before the compensation commission.”
Peterson highlighted at least three instances in which the city felt circumstances of the case were misrepresented; that the city did not have permission to stake the property, which the city holds was born of miscommunication and not intention; that a city employee did actually remove all the stakes he found when asked to remove them; and that no break in a North Liberty sewer line has ever occurred or caused pollution in Muddy Creek.
Weinman similarly was not happy with the commission’s decision– not because of the value, but because he would rather maintain the property in its natural state than have the money, he said.
“My intent is to stop this eminent domain from happening,” said Weinman. “I think it’s just wrong. I’m still searching for options, and I hope my lawsuit against the city gets heard before construction begins.”
The city was to have received sealed construction bids this week, on Wednesday, Feb. 18. Peterson said he expected the North Liberty City Council to review and possibly approve a bid at its next meeting, which has been moved from its regular day and time to Monday, Feb. 23, at 5 p.m.