The on and then off and now on again battle for land rights to assist with the major multi-million dollar industrial development of a new Colgate plant in Morristown is evidence of, at best, lousy planning by city officials.
Seems the new facility lacks access to a sewer system. Construction at the Colgate plant has been humming right along until - Surprise!! - the city failed to obtain the necessary easements for sewer access.
The city has a long tradition of reliance of using condemnation of private property and taking it via eminent domain claims, so that's what they did in October for the 11.5 acres owned by Bill Howell who operates an active dairy farm on the site. The city paid for an assessment of the value of the property and came up with a payment offer of $150,000.
In mid-November the local press proclaimed the deal was done, that Howell had signed an agreement to sell -- and added as well that the property in question would also be needed for a 5-lane roadway connecting Highway 160 with a road called Merchants Greene, which is the site of a still developing large retail complex. The bad news was, the report of the deal was bogus.
In the local paper's Nov. 18th edition, they write that no agreement to sell to the city has taken place. All that did occur was that Howell agreed to a future signing of an order of possession, which would grant the right to the city to have access to his property for road and other improvements, like sewer access. But no such signing has occurred in any reports I can find.
(NOTE: I cannot provide links to the local newspaper's articles on this debacle. The Citizen-Tribune will allow you to search their archives if you pay $5.95 for a one day access or $49.95 for a 30-day access and I for one am not willing to pay that much. Their "access to archives" page is here. Since I have a friend who is a subscriber to the paper, at a cost of just over $9 per month, the info on this eminent domain case is from the hard copy.)
Howell has stated he is seeking his own assessment of the property and until that happens, no agreements will be made. However, since the city has already filed their court documents seeking to use eminent domain in October, they are proceeding with that suit.
The poor folks at the Colgate plant, also are awaiting the outcome of the dispute, and are continuing with much hope as they construct their facility, which relocated here from Indiana. The city attracted them here after giving them the property for the facility at no charge and also giving a 7-year tax-free status on property taxes.
Though I can't imagine them presenting their sales package to Colgate with the admission that the city didn't have sewer access for the facility.
This isn't the first time - and won't be the last - that city officials use the forced seizure of land for industrial development. Time and again industrial proponents have claimed that tax benefits (even if delayed for many years) offset the problems private property owners have in selling active family-owned farmland. The city is currently considering using eminent domain to seize the property of the former Morristown College campus for an unnamed developer, since they say the asking price for the property by the current owner is too expensive.
In these times when most communities and states are re-working and improving the old-fashioned heavy-handed tactics of eminent domain to seize property. On Nov. 7, 2006 more than 80 percent of voters in Georgia, Michigan, New Hampshire and South Carolina approved constitutional amendments that forbid use of eminent domain for economic development. Arizona, Florida, Oregon, Nevada and North Dakota also passed eminent-domain limits. In all, 35 states have now curbed eminent domain abuse since the Kelo ruling.
The sad reality locally is that forced seizure is the card the city usually plays first. And historically, they usually win, despite any private or public opposition.