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Eminent domain use possible in land acquisition for Hancher

BY MICHAEL DALE-STEIN | MAY 08, 2009 7:30 AM

The UI could use its governmental power as a state university to acquire private property for relocating the Hancher/Voxman/Clapp complex, officials said.

Of the eight potential sites the UI presented to the state Board of Regents for rebuilding the complex, three are not university-owned, said UI spokesman Steve Parrott.

But the university could use eminent domain — which allows governmental purchase of private property under certain conditions — to secure those sites.

“As a state entity, we can use eminent domain,” Parrott said, but noted it’s too soon to determine whether the UI will use that privilege.

The three non-UI properties include two areas in the vicinity of Clinton and Burlington streets and a third location northeast of the Iowa Avenue and Gilbert Street intersection. Parrott could not give more specific locations for the sites.

Property taken with eminent domain falls under Fifth Amendment rights and must be acquired for “public use,” according to a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Governmental agencies are expected to provide owners with “just compensation.” In Iowa, eminent-domain requests must follow specific procedure set by the state code. The first step is writing a notice of public hearing to owners.

To date, the UI has never needed to take property under eminent domain, Parrott said. University officials didn’t consider using it after the 2006 tornado because “very few UI buildings were seriously damaged.”

But this time, the situation could be different. The flood damaged roughly 20 UI buildings, and officials are looking to relocate a handful of those with financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Attorney Dan Biersdorf, who specializes in eminent domain law, said any public university has eminent-domain rights and can condemn — or forcefully purchase — the private property for public use.

“If [any university] feels it needs to move somewhere and can’t cut a deal with a property owner, it won’t have any other choice but to use eminent domain,” said Biersdorf, who has practiced eminent domain law for 20 years with Minneapolis-based Biersdorf & Associates, a firm licensed to practice in Iowa and 14 other states.

Biersdorf said a university can’t simply use FEMA money to seize property. Generally, the institution would need approval from the state Legislature first.

“If a university [takes over property] for educational purposes, it will give the institution the right to condemn the property,” Biersdorf said.

Universities usually are not overly aggressive in forcing private property takeovers, he said, noting “that won’t help public relations.”

But UI senior Michael Ott said if the UI decides to exercise its governmental right, he will understand.

“As long as the UI provides Iowa City residents with appropriate restitution, they should be able to accommodate its changing needs as it sees fit,” Ott said.

The new complex should stay as close to campus as possible, he said.

Officials have said the UI is considering the eight sites because they fall within a 15-minute walk from campus.

The five UI-owned options include the Hawkeye Marching Band field, an area north of the current Hancher/Voxman/Clapp complex, Hubbard Park, UI land north of Myrtle Avenue, and university parking lots north of the University Services Building.

The regents could choose a relocation site at their June meeting, Parrott said.


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