Next Steps in Regional Airport Process, Eminent Domain

Regional Airport

by Aaron Riggs

Oskaloosa, Iowa – The Mahaska County Supervisors are taking a first step to try to prevent the possible use of eminent domain to acquire land for the regional airport. This week the supervisors approved a change to the 28-E sharing agreement among Mahaska County, Pella and Oskaloosa. The agreement formed the south central regional airport agency which has so far selected an airport site along highway 163, about 4.5 miles outside of Oskaloosa. Oskaloosa and Pella must also approve the supervisor’s change for it to take effect.

The amendment proposed by Supervisor Mark Doland, strikes language from the 28-E sharing agreement that gives the airport agency the option to use eminent domain to acquire land for the airport. Eminent domain is a legal process used to allow governments to gain ownership of private property. Officials with the project say it’s not their intent to use eminent domain but that it’s an option in most public projects. Supervisors Greg Gordy and Mike Vander Molen voted ‘yes’ to the change, along with Doland. The amendement won’t take effect, however, unless the city councils of Pella and Oskaloosa also approve it. For Oskaloosa’s city council, Mayor Krutzfeldt says that might be difficult to do.

“I know that the city council voted for the 28E agreement, very mindful that it had the condemnation requirement in there. Knowing where it came from. And so I think as a part of their own integrity they would say ‘no’ they’re not going to change anything,” says Oskaloosa Mayor Dave Krutzfeldt.

The proposed change comes after members from the group Taxpayers Against Regional Airport gathered nearly 2000 signatures asking for the removal of the possible use of eminent domain, saying it puts the landowner at a disadvantage.

“If they really want this to happen there needs to be a partnership between the people that are being directly affected by this and that’s been the frustration all along,” says Rob Hammann. He owns a house close to another proposed airport site, “site B”.

Opponents of the project say they feel the airport is being forced upon them, but say they will support a project that first identifies landowners who want to sell.

“There are some people in this room that would sell their farms today for an airport. I know they would cause I see their faces and they’ve been into my place and talked about it,” says Leighton resident Tim Van Maanen.

But the Federal Aviation Administration does not recommend the process work that way because the environment must be studied to first determine if an airport can even be built at a particular site. When land is purchased, the cities of Pella and Oskaloosa will have to bare the cost first, before reimbursement by the FAA for 90%. So as a caution to the cities, the FAA states on it’s website, “In order to protect FAA’s investment in airport property… [it] strongly encourages [buyers] to conduct an Environmental Site Assessment prior to actual acquisition of property.”

The airport project will start the Environmental Assessment phase later this year. Once the assessment is published, the public will be able to make comments on the report. Then the report and comments will be reviewed by the FAA which will determine: 1) that the airport can be built, 2) that more information is needed, or 3) that the airport cannot be built due to significant environmental impact. If that’s the case the alternative site B will be next in line for environmental studies. Officials expect the FAA to make a finding on site A in 2015.

Once the FAA gives approval of a site, then negotiations with landowners can begin, knowing full well that the purchased property is capable of having an airport built on it. Even though land acquisition will be more of a local issue with the cities purchasing the land, the FAA does have a stake in the matter because it will eventually pay for 90%. FAA told CRI in an email that its “concern is that the landowner receive fair market value for his or her property”. Which is why eminent domain is in the agreement– because, even though its a last resort, it ensures fairness both for the seller and the buyer. It does not put the landowner at a disadvantage with price according to Drake University law professor, Jonathan Rosenbloom.

“If the government comes in and says, ‘we’re going to give you $10,000 for this and we’re going to take it by eminent domain, unless you accept $10,000 for it’ and the market value happens to be $100,000–a court is not going to approve that because as I said, the constitution requires just compensation,” says Rosenbloom.

Property owners, however, say they want sentimental value taken into consideration.

“Maybe we were married on this property, maybe this is where our child was born on this property–those kind of things don’t generally get considered in eminent domain”

While officials say they are sensitive to high emotions regarding land acquisition, they still believe a regional airport is necessary to keep the region a viable place for doing business, that it creates efficiency by consolidating two airports into one, and that the airport will provide for the transportation needs in the region for the next 50 years.

Now that one of the three parties have amended the 28-E agreement, the other two are currently evaluating how to respond to the request. If the amendment is presented to the city councils for a vote, county and city officials have said they don’t expect it to pass.

 

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