By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader
TIFFIN– Barring an act of God, a deal will be struck, and Ireland Avenue will move forward.
In a special meeting Oct. 30, the Tiffin City Council took two swift actions that resulted in accepting a counteroffer for property owned by Grace United Methodist Church in Tiffin.
The city needed the land at the corner of Highway 6 and Roberts Ferry Road in order to extend Ireland Avenue as a north/south through street, a project that has been in progress– or alternately, at a standstill– for about six years. Obtaining the church property was nearly the city’s last right-of-way negotiation that needed to be cleared for the project to proceed.
The council hit a snag in September, when the church returned with a counteroffer on the land and house purchase that was higher than appraised market value. In addition, the church was asking the city to foot the bill for moving its handicapped-accessible entry and paving its parking lot. The estimated bill totaled nearly $600,000.
Initially, it wasn’t the price that was the sticking point, but the fact that three of the council’s members belong to Grace United Methodist, and the other two councilors raised a concern of a potential conflict of interest.
City attorney Crystal Raiber, of Lynch, Michael and Raiber, LLP, first offered the opinion that no conflict of interest was present.
However, council member Peggy Upton asked Raiber to send some case law examples to support the opinion, also concerned because the city was offering to pay more than fair market value for the property, causing Raiber to research the issue again and revise her firm’s opinion.
In an Oct. 18 memo to the Tiffin council members, mayor Steve Berner and city administrator Michon Jackson, Raiber said the presence of a conflict was not a clear-cut issue, but because the church was asking for more than market value for the land, she would instead recommend either asking for a new appraisal of the property– which might bring the appraised value more in line with the church’s counteroffer– or proceed to exercise eminent domain and condemn the property.
Council member Mike Ryan, pushed to the point of frustration at an Oct. 23 meeting after a tie vote killed acceptance of the church’s counteroffer, moved to proceed with condemnation. His motion received the support of councilors Jo Kahler and Jim Bartels.
After that meeting, Jackson contacted the League of Cities and received an opinion counter to Raiber’s; according to Jackson, the league’s counsel opined there is no conflict of interest, since there is no financial gain for the three council people that attend the church. The league’s legal personnel also indicated the city should not condemn against a willing participant, and the cost of the legal condemnation process would be more than the city was willing to paying the church for the property.
It wasn’t enough to change Raiber’s mind. She issued another memo to council members dated Oct. 29, stating that her firm had also consulted with the League of Cities, and her take was different than Jackson’s.
“The gentlemen who serve as general counsel feel that… it would appear to be a conflict of interest if the vote was to offer more than the appraised value. We discussed potential options if three council members say they have a conflict and cannot vote. The options we discussed were to have the city’s appraiser do another appraisal, or condemnation. I have contacted the (league’s) general counsel today regarding this issue, and they have told me their opinion on this has not changed.”
But Jackson’s communication was enough to prompt Ryan to reconsider, and offer a new motion in last week’s special meeting; to withdraw from condemnation proceedings.
This time, Ryan received unanimous support, but the unity didn’t last long.
When Ryan moved to approve the church’s counteroffer, it resulted in another 3-2 vote, with Royce Phillips and Peggy Upton voting against it.
“Everybody is clear that our attorney says it is a conflict of interest to pay more than the appraised value of the land, correct?” Upton asked those in favor.
Ryan said he was aware of Raiber’s opinion that the potential for a conflict of interest existed.
“She advised it could be a conflict of interest,” Ryan said. “I’m saying it’s not, so I’m voting like I did last time.”
Upton raised the question of future right-of-way negotiations.
“Has anyone considered the other people we have yet to deal with may look at this and say we paid the church way over what the appraiser said, so why don’t they do the same for me?” Upton asked.
Berner said he didn’t believe that should be a concern, because there was one more resident to deal with, and that person was close to settling.
“I don’t think you can hold up one acquisition offer because you are afraid of what will happen on the other,” Berner said.
Berner added that there had been many public meetings on the deal between the city and the church, and no residents came forth to express concerns.
“That shows the citizens are comfortable with the idea,” Berner said.
Royce Phillips countered.
“I don’t think that’s what it shows, but you could assume that, I suppose,” said Phillips.
Ryan said the fact that the three church members voted to condemn the property, it indicated that their concern was the road and not the church.
“I don’t think there is going to be a lawsuit, but if there is, bring it,” Ryan concluded.
Discussion ended promptly, and the ensuing 3-2 vote will allow the city to move forward with extending Ireland Avenue, after completing one last negotiation, Jackson said.
“There is only one more business remaining to negotiate prior to going out for bid on the Ireland Avenue project. We are waiting on the final appraisal to return, because there were a few modifications made,” Jackson noted. “Once that is received the city will negotiate with the business owner. All of the residents have verbally agreed to easements necessary for the project, but there are a few remaining that need to sign the final paperwork. At this point, we are still on track to bid this project in the spring of 2014.