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Property owner files lawsuit against NL

City to hold public hearing on east side sewer project Dec. 9
Muddy Creek runs through a portion of this acreage at 3115 12th Ave., Coralville, adjacent to North Liberty’s city limits. The City of North Liberty plans to run sewer lines along the creek basin to serve development on North Liberty’s expanding east side. Property owner Gary Weinman filed a lawsuit Nov. 26 to halt the city’s ability to exercise eminent domain in aquiring rights to do so, claiming there are other routes available. (photo by Lori Lindner)

NORTH LIBERTY– The City of North Liberty has given notice to eight different property owners that their land is desired for a large city project.
At least one landowner is fighting back.
Gary Weinman owns 70 acres of prairie land and uncultivated timber off 12th Avenue Extension south of North Liberty’s eastern city limits, his home of 32 years. Weinman was notified on July 18 that the City of North Liberty intends to lay sewer lines across his property in order to bring utility service to the planned new Liberty High School, which will be built near the intersection of Dubuque Street and North Liberty Road.
The North Liberty City Council will hold a series of public hearings Tuesday, Dec. 9, to consider proceeding with the public improvement project on Weinman’s and seven other properties. The notice states that the city will attempt to acquire the private property needed for the project through good faith negotiations, but will, as allowed by law, exercise eminent domain to condemn those properties it is unable to purchase.
On Wednesday, Nov. 26, Weinman filed a legal petition to stop that action.
The city has been in a hurry to expand utilities eastward since the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) announced it will build its third comprehensive high school there.
To be constructed in three phases, the 250,000 sq. ft. high school will sit on 76 acres purchased by the ICCSD in August 2013. The first phase of the school is slated to be complete in time for a fall 2017 opening.
In order to make that deadline, North Liberty officials have been taking steps to design the sewer and water infrastructure necessary to service the eastside school and nearby residential development.
In November 2013, the North Liberty City Council approved a $155,000 contract with Fox Engineering for preliminary designs to expand utilities to the area. In February of this year, as part of its 2015 Capital Improvements Plan, the council approved borrowing up to $3.5 million to accomplish the project, and in April, North Liberty annexed by voluntary means 567.7 acres of land surrounding the school site into its city limits. This September, the city also purchased 28.8 acres of land from Four D’s Acres, LLC, behind the existing wastewater treatment plant off South Front Street. The $864,000 purchase– $30,000 per acre–will accommodate a planned expansion of the facility.
The North Liberty City Council heard a report from Fox Engineering on May 27 outlining the firm’s forecast for infrastructure needs and recommendations for public improvements. In that meeting, John Gade of Fox Engineering presented a map showing proposed routes for 2.3 miles of sewer line and 3.3 miles of water main, at a total cost of $5.8 million. The proposed sewer route extends from the city’s current wastewater treatment plant (behind Van Allen Elementary School) and heads southeast, following the Muddy Creek basin across Weinman’s property before jogging northeast across several other private properties toward Dubuque Street and the new school location.
In May, Gade told the council the route that goes through Weinman’s property was the most economical.
“We are doing that to keep the sewer about 10-to-15 feet deep,” Gade said. “We did look at an option of running the sewer along the future Forevergreen roadway extension. It was about 50-to-60 feet deep. We originally thought that was the most economical route to go, but after really costing it out and working with some contractors, it was a lot more money; about $1 million more to go that route. We looked at some other routes, but going down low was the most economical and avoided some impacts around some properties.”
However, Weinman’s lawsuit– which requests declaratory relief, an injunction against further city action, and directives from the courts to pursue alternative routes and to preserve the natural habitat– contends there are other potential paths for the sewer line, and many reasons to investigate them instead of crossing Weinman’s prairie.
The petition states Fox Engineering, as an agent of the city, trespassed on the plaintiff’s property without notice or permission to survey a potential sewer line; that no proper environmental impact analysis has been conducted; that a previous environmental study for a future road alignment determined the presence of protected species of turtle and bat; that the property was established by the Department of Natural Resources as a natural preserve for habitat purposes and vegetation, a development plan with a duration of 30 years; that the Iowa legislature in 2006 supported action against eminent domain where alternatives exist; that a feasibility study for alternate routes has not been conducted; that the risks for environmental damage to Muddy Creek in the case of a sewer line break are undisclosed; and that the aforementioned alternative route along a suggested future Forevergreen Road alignment would be easier to construct, more direct, less expensive, in line with other easements, and in a location for proposed development where costs can be assessed to developers. The petition also seeks to recoup fees and costs associated with the court action.
But for Weinman, the lawsuit is not about money at all. In a telephone interview Wednesday, he iterated his reason for filing the petition and protecting the land he and his family have nurtured for so long.
“I love my property the way it is, and they are going to destroy it. It took 30 years for that prairie to become the way it is,” Weinman said. Further, he said, a friend who works in the prairie restoration business told Weinman it would be impossible to return the land to its existing condition once heavy machinery crossed the ground, vegetation was removed and trenches were dug. Weinman said he had several discussions with city officials, including City Administrator Ryan Heiar, prior to filing the petition.
“Mr. Heiar has said it won’t disturb the ornate box turtle, but how do they know that? They are going to drive all over it with equipment, and I think they are wrong about that. It seems intolerable that they can just walk through my property simply because they think it is the cheapest route for them when they have an alternative route.”
The public hearing on the project is scheduled as part of the North Liberty City Council’s regular Dec. 9 meeting, which begins at 6:30 p.m. in the North Liberty council chambers, 1 Quail Creek Cr., North Liberty.
On Tuesday, North Liberty City Attorney Scott Peterson said he would be handling the case, but declined to offer comment on the petition.