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It rolls downhill

Most recently, I have learned more than I ever wanted to know about the way sanitary sewers are designed. But then again, everybody already knows the proverbial crap always flows downhill.
That’s what some saw happening with the lawsuit filed against the City of North Liberty and its plan to exercise eminent domain to access private property for a planned sewer project.
Of the basic tenets of Iowa’s eminent domain law, the most important and consistent across all states that allow it is this: it has to be for the public good.
Some states restrict the law even further, disallowing the “public good” to be defined by economic development. That principle was challenged in Iowa in 2006, when the Iowa legislature passed House File 2351 by votes of 89-5 in the House, and 43-6 in the Senate. That bill reformed the use of eminent domain by prohibiting local governments from taking homes and small businesses for the purpose of economic development. Governor Tom Vilsack vetoed that legislation, and the Iowa Legislature convened in a special summer session to override the veto.
That premise– that governments cannot take land by eminent domain to benefit private enterprise with some qualifications for blighted or slum conditions– stands today.
Fast forward to last Thursday, when witnesses in the case of Gary Weinmen vs. the City of North Liberty testified about the sewer line the city needs to run through Weinman’s property in order to serve Iowa City Community School District’s new Liberty High School. The district hopes to have it open by 2017.
Undisputed is the fact that the district needs another high school. Equally evident is that North Liberty officials have the very best intent to assist the district in making that happen, and that the location near North Liberty came out on top in countless committee discussions, public input sessions, facility studies, enrollment and development data analyses and years of consistent effort to identify the best place for that school to be.
But after hearing new testimony in the case last week, I left with more questions than conviction that the proposed sewer project was in its best location, or that it was solely for the public good.
Fox Engineering was hired in 2010 to do a comprehensive study of North Liberty’s current sewer and water systems and their capacities to serve future populations. The eastern edge of North Liberty was identified as a growth area, and Fox’s conclusion was that the wastewater treatment plant would need a significant expansion, while the water plant needs an entirely new facility. When the school district announced its plan to build Liberty High on North Liberty’s eastern edge, the city moved quickly to annex the area into its city limits and tasked Fox Engineering in 2013 to figure out how to get municipal utilities there under the district’s proposed timeline.
Fox’s engineers located two possible routes; one would avoid Weinman’s property, but that route would require the 30-inch sewer pipe to be buried so deep it would be $1.5 million more expensive and was deemed impractical for future maintenance. The other is the proposed route that crosses 13 private properties, including Weinman’s. Twelve property owners signed easement agreements, but Weinman is holding out in order to preserve a prairie he agreed to reestablish as part of an Iowa Department of Natural Resources project 30 years ago, land that is also home to two protected animal species.
All those facts are well-established and largely inarguable, no matter which side of eminent domain you favor.
But last week, civil engineer Randy Krutzfield from Hart Frederick Engineering was asked by Weinman’s legal counsel to objectively evaluate whether there was an alternate route to serve the school, and he offered one. His suggestion was to go straight east from the wastewater plant and travel a more direct path to the school site– a shorter, cheaper path, according to his perfunctory calculations.
Krutzfield acknowledged his evaluation was preliminary; he was not hired to do a complete and thorough engineering study of the route. City witnesses argued that the engineer’s proposal, admittedly completed in just eight hours, would not function for the task at hand.
Because, said Fox Engineering’s John Gade, the task was to design a sewer that would serve the entire drainage basin, 1,300 acres in size. Further, Gade said Krutzfield’s route would only accommodate a small sewer, maybe eight inches in diameter. Gade conceded it might effectively serve the school, but only the school. Fox was asked to design a much larger, gravity flow system. Documents prepared by his firm in October stated that the pipe would be upsized to 30 inches in order to accommodate flows from Coralville.
North Liberty has made no secret of its plan to let Coralville hook up to this sewer line, eliminating the necessity for a second sewer installation as Coralville accommodates an elementary school to be built across from the high school. City Administrator Ryan Heiar, on the stand last week, also said this sharing arrangement– the details of which have not yet been discussed in North Liberty council meetings or formalized in writing– will save Coralville money as it develops the adjacent Scanlon Farm area.
What wasn’t asked was how much of the 1,300-acre basin this large sewer will serve each city. According to North Liberty’s city planner, about 80 percent of it lies in North Liberty’s designated growth and annexation area laid out in the 2011 agreement between the two communities. The rest will be in Coralville’s city limits.
So, in light of all I’ve learned, my questions still remain: is the purpose of this sewer project to get the new high school up and running, or is it a convenient justification to accommodate private development that will in no small way benefit Coralville? If the latter is more true, should the taxpayers of North Liberty alone front the $5.8 million cost of this utilities project? And most critically, if the heart of our eminent domain law lies snugly in the bosom of public good, is the public convinced that the school district and its children are the sole intended beneficiaries, as the law requires?
Judge Chris Bruns of the Sixth Judicial District Court of Iowa ruled Tuesday that Weinman’s legal counsel didn’t prove otherwise, and the city can proceed with its condemnation hearing.
And as a result, Weinman likely will see 30 years of his effort to establish and protect a native Iowa prairie overtaken by that most invasive of species; progress.