St. Mary’s commissioners approved a request from the office of the county attorney to file suit against Windward Land Development LLC for the purpose of condemnation proceedings related to expansion of the county’s regional airport.
David Weiskopf, county attorney, addressed commissioners at the meeting on Tuesday to discuss the eminent domain ordinance.
“As you know, there is expansion going on at the regional airport,” he said. “Part of that is making the runway longer and as a result of that … we need a navigation easement of approximately 35.5 acres,” for a just compensation price determined at $16,000.
He told commissioners they have not been able to reach an accord with the property owner, “so we have to go to the next step, which is to file in court for eminent domain to get that 35½ acres” and in order to do that, the commissioners have to approve the ordinance first.
“I don’t like eminent domain,” Commissioner Mike Hewitt (R) said, before being the lone commissioner to vote against the motion. “When people have private property they have some kind of entitlement to know what they can do on their property. … What restrictions does this put on that 35 acres?”
Weiskopf mentioned in his 12 years as the county attorney, this is the first time he’s had to ask for an eminent domain ordinance. “It’s very limited what they can do anyway,” due to its proximity to the airport, but the property could be used as a cemetery, parking lot or for agricultural purposes.
Hewitt said since the ordinance could impact the value of the property, “$16,000 seems to be a low number.”
“Certainly. That’s why we spent two years waiting for the landowner to come back with a counter offer,” Weiskopf responded, adding there have been plenty of attempts but the landowner continually claims he is working on getting his own appraisal.
Hewitt asked if Weiskopf had a number from them, and the attorney responded that the landowner mentioned that he thought the county should purchase the property.
“That might not be a bad idea,” the commissioner said, since the county owns the property next to this property and especially since they might want to expand the airport more in the future.
If commissioners pass the ordinance, Weiskopf said he could reach out to the landowner’s attorney again and say, “We are going down this course, is this enough for you to now go get an appraisal and make a counter offer? … They want us to file before they sit down with us.”
“I think it’s prudent to get this airport done and have a meaningful contract with the landowner,” Commissioner Todd Morgan (R) said.
“They’re daring us to make the next step,” Commissioner President Randy Guy (R) claimed.
John Deatrick, director of the department of public works and transportation, reminded commissioners “We have to close the grant out that allows us to get that great deal by September and we’re at the end of the road here and they simply won’t talk to us.”
He said he believes the landowner wants to sell the whole parcel, which in county documents is listed as 170 acres, but Deatrick said he has no idea how much it would cost. He also said the property could be useful in manufacturing or industrial uses or could be made into a remote parking lot.
Morgan moved to approve the eminent domain ordinance with Commissioner Eric Colvin (R) motioning second.
Weiskopf said, “95% of suits get settled. I’d bet on a settlement.”