Is District 5 Threatening to Use Eminent Domain?

March 9, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveBy Kim Murphy
Citizen Reporter

 

Lexington-Richland School District 5 is still pushing forward with plans for new schools despite declining enrollment and the unanswered question of how they are going to pay for the additional operating costs those facilities will generate despite decreasing revenues.

And that pushiness is showing through in its dealings with property owners.

On Jan. 27, District 5’s administration gave one landowner an ultimatum – to sell his land or have it seized by eminent domain. But board members say they have not given the administration the go ahead to make that threat.

According to documents obtained by The Nerve, to enlarge a 110-acre multi-parcel tract, a District 5 representative threatened condemnation if the property owner refused to sell his 10 acres of land.

The property is located on Broad River Road in a rural area of the school district. Board members have just been informed of the administration’s actions.

Some details of the district’s pending contractual matters may be kept confidential until finalized.

However, when asked if the board had authorized the administration to pressure property owners into selling their property by threatening condemnation, board member Jan Hammond did not hesitate to answer. “No,” she said. “We have absolutely not authorized them to do such a thing.”

But it seems that the administration has been positioning themselves, along with their board members, for the land grab, leaving the property owner, who has requested his name not be published in this article, little choice in the matter if board members want to pursue the taking.

The owner of the 10-acre tract had been approached six years ago by Buddy Price, the director of community services, and Dan Chandler, a former chief financial officer, inquiring of his interest to sell.

District 5 periodically contacted the owner up until 2008, then silence. No formal offers were made.

Now, the property owner finds himself surrounded, in a horseshoe-shaped configuration, by four tracts of land District 5 surreptitiously began purchasing in 2004 totaling 110 acres, which they later admitted was for a future high school, middle school, and career and tech center.

The first tract purchased, a 22-acre parcel on one side of the 10 acres, was initially billed as a site for an elementary school. The public was told that the second, which is also a 10-acre tract and adjoins the 22-acre parcel, was purchased to “enhance” the elementary school site – to allow for better access in and out.

Then, two tracts on the opposite side of the property secretly went under contract – a 58-acre site and a 19-acre site.

After a tip from a watch dog, the 58-acre deal finally became public – almost three months after the property closed in 2007.

District 5’s attorney announced in The State newspaper that the S.C. Freedom of Information Act allowed them to withhold the purchase from the public.

However, in the article attorney Jay Bender, who is the state’s leading expert of the FOIA, said otherwise. Bender said the district should have disclosed details of the deal after board members approved the sales contract – 11 months earlier.

Details weren’t disclosed on the 19-acre parcel, either, although Paula Hite, the former board chair, said following the board’s vote, “Once the contract is finalized, that information will be made public.”

The property closed in April 2008. Months later, the details were still not released even after a formal Freedom of Information Act request.

And the school board, who will ultimately have the final say on any condemnation action, was incorrectly led to believe the 10 acres was owned by multiple owners – over 30 of them – and the owners “didn’t agree” on anything.

In fact, during the first presentation of the site plan on Nov. 9 showing the proposed facilities on the 110 acres, which now surrounds the 10-acre parcel, Keith McAlister, the district’s director of new design and construction, said the 10-acre tract had “36 to 38” owners.

At that meeting, board member Roberta Ferrell recalled what she was previously told by the administration, “I thought the complication was the number of people agreeing,” and “As well as I can remember the 37 people didn’t agree on what to do.”

In other words, it looks like a seed had been planted in the board’s mind that the more than 30 property owners are squabbling over their 10 acres.

That mindset would certainly make the board’s condemnation decision easier than if they were dealing this blow to one property owner who had owned the land for over 20 years. The sole owner of the 10-acre tract purchased it in 1988.

But this isn’t the first time District 5 has threatened to condemn land in this sparsely populated area.

Coincidentally, directly across the street from the 110 acres is a 240-acre tract that District 5 and the Mungo Co. attempted to purchase in a partnership in 2001 – one-half of the land for a middle and high school and one-half for a housing development.

In order to gain an entrance to the portion of the property for the school site, several homeowners were informed by a District 5 representative that if the land deal went through, District 5 would use eminent domain, if necessary, to acquire the property.

(The board eventually voted against the 240-acre site after lobbying efforts from organized residents proved the administration and consultants misled the board by lowballing costs of rock removal, and sewer and water installation. At that meeting, the board chair remarked they would begin searching for school sites again, but in a “more low key way.” The Mungo Co. subsequently purchased the entire 240-acre tract in 2004 and rezoned it to 490 home sites. No development has started as of yet on the subdivision or on the 110-acre school site across the street.)

Not wanting to sell this land but fearing condemnation, the owner of the 10-acre tract recently met with District 5 Superintendent Herb Berg and Price, the district’s director of community services. The owner said he would consider a swap – his property in the center for another 10 acres on the 110-acre site.

But the property owner declined after attempting to walk the district’s wet, low-lying land being considered for the swap. The owner wants to keep his property but now again fears condemnation.

Another board member has shown consideration for land owners. Carol Sloop said at the Nov. 9 meeting that a reason the property owner might not want to sell may be because they are “looking ahead thinking they have all kinds of possibilities.”

She said that she would “love to have it (the land) but there are other possibilities.”

The condemnation decision is looming and will surely be discussed on March 10 in executive session, the portion of the meeting closed to the public. The agenda lists “Property contractual matter.”

(Though hush-hush, too, a vote that night is expected on an 81-acre tract, also on Broad River Road in an even less populated area, for a middle school and an elementary school.) The public meeting will be held at 4 p.m. at the district office.

Executive session will begin at 5:30 and a public vote will follow.

Kim Murphy and her family live in Chapin. She serves on the State Workforce Investment Act Board and the Richland County Appearance Commission.