MT. COMFORT — The controversial roundabout on Mt. Comfort Road must go through another hurdle before it is built: The final piece of property to be acquired to build it may go before a jury.
This is the first time in memory that Hancock County officials will take an eminent domain case all the way to trial.
At issue is the land on the northwest corner of CRs 600N and 300W. The 1.124 acres includes the El Nopal restaurant.
All of the other properties at the intersection have been sold to county government, but county officials and landowner Karen Beeson can’t agree on how much the land is worth.
Commissioners had the land appraised at $561,200, but court-appointed appraisers say the land is worth far more: $831,600, a difference of more than $270,000.
Commissioners say they want to get the best value for the property, especially because they are spending tax dollars to acquire it. But Beeson’s attorney, Joe Hammes, said the court-appointed appraisers were independent and gave an unbiased view of how much the land is worth.
Both parties tried mediation last week, but to no avail.
“The parties did not get very close in my estimation, and that’s where it left off,” Hammes said.
Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to take the case to a jury trial, and a trial date is set for Aug. 12. Commissioner Tom Stevens, who sat through the mediation process, said he is optimistic the trial will result in a better cost for the county.
“When you look at the dollars per acre that this is appraised at, I just cannot imagine the jury going higher than what we have (it) appraised at,” Stevens said.
Eminent domain is the process through which government purchases land to make way for streets, buildings or utilities. Commissioner Brad Armstrong said most of the county’s eminent domain cases over the years have involved minor parcels, as the county only needed a few feet to expand roads, for example.
But the proposed roundabout is large, with multiple lanes, and it required the purchase of seven properties. Plus, Armstrong adds that the land is expensive: The area just off of the expanded I-70 corridor is marked for economic growth.
“I think probably the reason we haven’t had a lot of them go to trial is we haven’t bought a lot of property with the value than at that intersection,” Armstrong said. “It’s expensive ground – hugely expensive ground.”
The roundabout project has been several years in the making. After concerns from property owners and schools at several public meetings, county officials have been at odds over whether to even continue the project.
While Armstrong and some county council members pointed out that the money used for buying right-of-way could be used elsewhere in the county to improve aging rural roads, the majority of elected officials said the project should keep moving forward.
Construction of the roundabout will be funded mostly with a federal grant. The grant, however, cannot be used to buy land.
Funds from the tax increment finance district will pay for $1.5 million of right-of-way acquisition, and anything over that will be paid with highway department money.
Last year, three property owners would not agree to offers made by the county, so Hancock Superior Court 1 appointed three new appraisers to reassess the value of the land. The appraisals for the three pieces of land – including two properties owned by Beeson – came in more than $750,000 higher than county officials expected, and county commissioners have been working to negotiate the cost of land acquisition ever since.
Armstrong remains against the roundabout project, but he voted in favor of the case going before a jury because he’s hopeful it could mean a better price for the county.
“Obviously, our job is to buy that ground at the best price that we can. That’s our job for the taxpayer, not to go out and overpay for ground,” he said
Overall, costs for the land at the roundabout location have been skyrocketing. To date, county commissioners have agreed to pay a total of $1.4 million for the other six properties at the intersection. That’s roughly $563,000 more than the commissioners’ original appraisals said all of the land was worth.
But Stevens said he’s fairly pleased that commissioners have been able to negotiate down the court-appointed appraisals of the other properties.
While a jury date is already set for the northwest corner, Hammes said he’s holding out hope that the matter can still be settled out of court. Beeson could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Hammes points out that a price for the northeast corner, also owned by Beeson and Ann Elsbury, was negotiated. Commissioners agreed to pay $515,000 for just less than one acre. That’s $82,000 more than the original appraisal.
He said since a price for that property was successfully negotiated, the price for Beeson’s property on the northwest side could be settled as well before it goes to court.
Hammes said he will be meeting with the county’s attorney, Yasmin Stump, about settling the case before it goes to trial.