The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

September 21, 2011

Second property owner fears eminent domain for his lots

JOPLIN, Mo. — Aaron Doll believes the Joplin School District may soon begin condemnation proceedings to acquire three lots he owns near the high school.

Doll, 30, lived at 2105 Grand Ave. until his home was destroyed in the May 22 tornado.

He soon bought lots to the north and south of his with plans for a walk-out basement, a bigger yard and a home with a view from the top of the hill — overlooking a new Joplin High School.

District officials have said moving the high school, which also was destroyed May 22, to the south and west would take it out of the a flood plain and make it eligible for federal dollars to help with rebuilding.

The district earlier this month began eminent domain proceedings against one property owner near the high school, Cynthia Turner, of 2308 Iowa Ave. The district was granted a preliminary injunction blocking Turner from rebuilding, but Huff, superintendent of the Joplin School District, is optimistic he and Turner can settle the dispute through negotiations.

Doll believes he is next unless he reaches a deal with the district, and in fact said he was told by Huff to expect a visit from the district’s lawyer soon. Huff has confirmed that.

“I’m scared to put a shovel in the dirt,” Doll said.

Although the Joplin Board of Education authorized acquiring those lots through the use of eminent domain when it met Sept. 8, Ashley Micklethwaite, board president, said the district sees eminent domain as a last resort, and Huff said this week he still hopes he and Doll can strike a deal that avoids going to court.

‘Ideal location’

Besides acquiring lots adjacent to his, Doll said he has completed the demolition work, had foundations torn out and dirt work done, and believes he should be compensated for that as well as the land itself. He bought the properties next to his, he said, not only so he could have a bigger home but also to mitigate his financial risk.

“I didn’t want mixed residential or prefabricated homes, so I thought it would help to isolate the risk,” Doll said. “I didn’t want to be next to a home considerably less valuable.

“Ideally, if everything were to go our way, I could build on the three lots. I liked where I was, in center of town. I could walk to Walgreens and Dillons and I was close to work. It’s an ideal location.”

Doll, like many Joplinites after the tornado, has had a nomadic experience, first living with his boss for a few weeks, then living with his parents and finally finding a rental home. He said making plans for his new home brought him a sense of normalcy and control. Now, he claims, that sense of control is being taken away again.

“I feel like this is, in a way, a second storm,” Doll said.

District officials first mailed letters to owners of properties south and west of the high school indicating their interest in acquiring the land around June 29.

Doll remembers getting a letter around that time but did not interpret it in such a way that it made acquisition of the lots imperative.

The letter does not mention eminent domain, and states that the district is “beginning to inquire about the availability of adjacent properties” and that it wanted to “acquire properties adjacent to each other from corner to corner in the areas described.”

So Doll said he went ahead with his plans, and closed on the properties to the north and south of his (2101 and 2109 Grand Ave.) in July, and began working on design plans for the new house.

Huff, however, said Doll’s property, which is out of the flood plain, is important to the district, although he said he isn’t sure how the land will specifically be used because all of the lots the district is acquiring — 80 have been identified — would need to be subjected to a traffic study and site development plan.

“It’s an important piece of property, and we were disappointed to learn that those properties (on either side) were sold after we had already expressed interest in them,” Huff said.

Standstill

Doll said his first conversation with a district official about his lots came on Aug. 14, and he said he emailed district officials a list of his expenses since the tornado as well as other incentives that he believes make rebuilding on his previous lot advantageous, including cash that he said would be provided by his insurance company once the rebuilding process begins at the site.

Doll said he and district officials continued corresponding, but were never able to reach agreement. Meanwhile, Doll continued work to rebuild. He said the design plans for the property and elevations were completed by Sept. 2.

Neither Doll nor school officials were willing to release the dollar figures.

“We feel like if they’re going to take our property, we’re not unwilling to sell — we don’t want to sell — but we need to be compensated for the incentive that our insurance company gives us to rebuild here,” Doll said.

It was in early September that he noticed one of his neighbors, Cynthia Turner, had stopped rebuilding her home. At that point, he suspended any work on his property so as to not incur more expenses in the event that eminent domain was used by the school district.

Doll says Huff contacted him directly about the property on Sept. 7 and he discussed a price with him, including expenses and the value of incentives he believes he may qualify for if he stays.

On Sept. 8, the school board held a closed session and authorized the use of eminent domain if necessary on several lots, including the three owned by Doll.

The district has said it wants to begin work on a new high school this winter, in order to open it by August 2014.

Doll said that on Sept. 14 he gave Huff a final offer and said he planned to proceed with his building phase, and that Huff told him he would inform the board of the final offer and that the school’s attorney would be in touch.

Huff said Doll’s timeline of the correspondence is accurate.

“I may disagree with what the schools are doing and the tone they’ve taken with me, but altogether I’m a big supporter of the schools,” Doll said. “I’ve been amazed to see what they did and what can be done, but concerned at what cost.”

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