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Council prefers further negotiations over eminent domain


Fri, Feb 23rd, 2007
Posted in Government



PRESTON - An overflow crowd packed the Preston City Council chambers on Tuesday, February 20, to argue against the imposition of "eminent domain" to acquire the final two properties for the Forestville Trail.

Mayor Pro-tem Heath Mensink laid down the ground rules making it clear to those present that one outburst would receive a warning, two would mean removal. The crowd, though highly vocal, expressed their heart felt opinions in an orderly fashion. Council member Jon Haugan was absent and Mayor Kurt Reicks entered the chambers after the "trail" arguments were on their way.

Mensink outlined the history the of the issue over the last four years. On February 3, 2003, Attorney David Joerg stated that twenty-four properties were needed and two were yet to be obtained. In October of 2005, Joerg suggested that "eminent domain" be authorized to obtain the last two properties. Members of both land owner families were present at that meeting. The council opted for further negotiations at that time. In March 2006 the council sent a resolution requesting funding support to the state legislature. On February 2, 2007, Joerg again updated the board and explained that the negotiations with the Snyder and Ristau families had stalled. He again requested that the council authorize the authority for "eminent domain."

Argument For

Mr. Joerg presented his position that after nine years, the acquisition of two properties still needed to be completed. He suggested that the inability to acquire all the properties has "crippled" the effort to obtain funding from the state legislature. He explained that he felt that there was no reasonable alternative to go around the two properties to complete the trail from Preston to Forestville State Park.

Joerg detailed the "eminent domain" process from the petition to the court to condemn the properties, to the process to determine property value, to the trial with a six citizen jury, to verdict or property value designation, and finally to the appeals court. He explained that all through the process, negotiations continue to reach for an agreement outside of court. He insisted that he has negotiated with these land owners "to the best of his ability."

Council member Robert Sauer asked Joerg about the land owners and whether they had input as to where the trail should be located. Joerg said that the land has been surveyed and that the trail could be shifted if there was agreement. Dale Wille, who mapped the proposed trail for the Joint Powers Board, explained that Vernon Ristau had suggested a more appropriate location for the trail. Wille agreed that the suggestion was an improvement and would provide the Ristau's better access to their fields. It was noted that the trail layout must meet the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which restricts the design to no more than a 5% grade.

Sauer asked about the other cities that are part of the Joint Powers Board for the trails. The cities included are Fountain, Wykoff, Spring Valley, Ostrander, Preston, and Chatfield. Dr. Sauer suggested that if Joerg went to the board for the authority, then he would need to go to each of the participating city councils. Joerg emphasized that these communities don't have the same economic interest in this trail and that the city of Preston will benefit the most.

Arguments Against

Vernon Ristau stated that his property has been in his family for sixty-four years.

Ristau said, "It is hard to accept that people have more to say about it than we do" and "it doesn't feel right at all." He insisted that the first two trail alignments through their land made no sense at all and that his suggestion would at least cause less damage.

Kay Ristau insisted that the city council of Preston shouldn't be able to tell us what to do when we are seven miles out of the city. She expressed a concern that the trail could intrude on hunting and fishing. Later she suggested that the council ask each individual land owner that did sign, if he or she was "bullied" into signing. Concerns were also raised about liability and vandalism and who was responsible. Another of the Ristau family accused Attorney Joerg of misleading people from the beginning.

John Snyder and his wife Bernadette, who own property next to the Ristaus, came prepared with a fairly long statement and numerous quotes from newspaper articles about various trails. John Snyder was impassioned in his statement saying that they felt insulted and that no consideration was offered to them from the start. They, as most everyone who spoke, agreed that the trails were a good idea if an agreeable place to put it could be found. He said that they shouldn't have to follow the river. They were put off by the methods used by Joerg to acquire the land, calling it an "abuse of power."

Snyder insisted, "A stranger should not have more right to our land than we do." He emphasized that there has to be a better answer than "eminent domain."

Snyder said that the way he and his wife were treated contributed to the impasse.

Council member David Harrison said that he understood what was being said, but then asked what can we do now.

Carimona Township Supervisor Arlynn Hovey listed several objections. He questioned why put a bike trail on prime farm land and asked how a village council could condemn land in the country. He concluded by saying that a bike trail is a 'want' and not a 'need.'

Melvin Meyer said that he lives west of the Forestville and suggested that even if it is the law, we should turn to a 'higher law' and not covet our neighbors property.

Former Preston Council member Steve Knoepke said that he was making a statement as a tax payer. He insisted that this was not a good application of "eminent domain." He warned that it could lead to a lawsuit and noted that Preston has not fared well with lawsuits. Knoepke again brought attention to the fact that these land owners did not have an opportunity to vote for members of the Preston City Council.

Sharon Prinsen encouraged the council and others to look for alternatives. Summing up the last hour of citizens making their points from the podium, she stated that it is obvious that this (the trail) is not wanted here.

Decision

Heath Mensink went back to the question in 2005 when it was decided to continue negotiating. Then, the council suggested that they would only authorize "eminent domain" as a last resort. He asked, "Are we at a last resort?" He asked if there was still any possibility of negotiation. It was suggested by property owners that the Carimona Town Board help with the negotiations because they are farmers and understand farm issues and are trusted. It was clear that neither the Snyder's nor the Ristau's trusted David Joerg at this point.

Dale Wille, who was raised on a farm, and Robert Sauer, who was the only council member to visit one of the properties, seemed to be acceptable to negotiating further with property owners. Other alternative routes were discussed and the property owners wanted these explored. Mayor Reicks suggested that an additional six months be used to negotiate further and look at alternatives before any decision on "eminent domain" is made.

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