3/18/2007

Newmarket confronts eminent domain: Foster's Daily Democrat, Dover NH, 3/9/07

When Newmarket [NH] voters go to the polls Tuesday they will be asked to authorize the School Board to seize land by eminent domain, land owned by fellow residents Michael Weit and Debbie Hale. Voters will not, however, find the words "eminent domain" in any of the warrant articles printed on the ballot.

Voters will see warrant articles relative to the possible construction of a new high school. Article 1 would allow the board to begin architectural and engineering work. A second deals with land acquisition.

A literal reading of Article 3 would simply allow the School Board to spend up to $1.65 million to acquire land for the $20-plus million project. If approved by voters, it would give the board the green light to attempt to take the Weit/Hale property by eminent domain should the family decide not to sell — something Mike Weit recently emphasized for the umpteenth time he will not do.

The board's most recent interest in the Weit/Hale property stems from the latest incarnation of plans to build a new school. Previously, the board had eyed the same property for acquisition, but stepped away from the eminent domain issue when it proposed building a $35 million complex on the Rockingham Country Club property. That vote failed miserably, bringing the School Board back to the Weit/Hale property.

This year voters will be asked to sign off a reformulated plan, one that will all but certainly include using eminent domain to acquire the Weit/Hale property, while purchasing the nearby Carpenter land.

The reason for invoking eminent domain is twofold. First, Mike Weit and Debbie Hale won't sell. They want to preserve their farm, one that has been in the family for generations. The other reason is that the School Board is proposing to create a campus, one that would eventually connect the old high school with the new one and the current elementary school. In order to do this they need the Weit/Hale property.

Or do they?

Eminent domain is serious business. Taking someone's property by eminent domain should only be done as a last resort and only if fairly compensated. Weit and Hale have challenged the school district on both counts.

According to Weit and others, the current building program that will go to voters March 13 comes up short in many ways. While the campus concept is attractive, it is incomplete. The School Board, at least publicly, has not settled the issue of acquiring the Carpenter property nor how it will be used in the overall program.

A recent public presentation was filled with if's and maybe's. School officials admitted they hadn't worked out all the kinks, but were looking for concept approval from the public before moving ahead.

What makes eminent domain so certain in this case is how married the School Board appears to be to the campus concept, to the exclusion of other suggestions.

One suggestion would see a school built on the athletic fields behind the current school. The proposal would see the fields moved elsewhere in order to preserve recreational opportunities originally funded by the federal government.

Supporters of this plan argue it would forgo the need to acquire the Weit/Hale property. Use of the ball fields might also allow expansion of the current school by opening up land for parking. Or perhaps even the construction of a less expensive middle school. When School Board Chairman Chris Hawkins was asked recently if the federal government had been approached about moving the fields in a land trade, he said no. This, despite the question having been raised myriad times before.

Then there is the issue of fair compensation. The school district's first offer was below assessed value and assumed the parcel was landlocked. When Mike Weit argued the property was not landlocked, the town upped its offer from $50,000 to $400,000, a number arguably below the going rate for the number of building lots the land would support.

Asking Newmarket voters to spend $20-plus million on a new school is tough enough. But asking them to take their neighbors' land is even tougher.

Newmarket voters need to consider seriously the issue of eminent domain in deciding how they will vote on Articles 1 and 3 — it's a matter of more than just dollars and cents.


Foster's Daily Democrat, Dover NH: http://www.fosters.com