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24J may threaten eminent domain

Process would result in school district getting land, church getting compensation

Of the Keizertimes

From the outset of bond discussions in the 2016-17 school year, Salem-Keizer School District officials made it known that land northeast of the existing McNary campus, owned by St. Edward Catholic Church, was needed to move forward with a planned expansion to accommodate a growing student body.

However, after months of talks, negotiations fell through, said Mike Wolfe, SKSD chief operating officer. The school district now plans to use the eminent domain process to condemn the roughly six acres needed and gain possession for the purpose of expanding the school.

“The school and the church have always been great neighbors and we started with talks about purchasing a portion of the land and maybe leasing other parts. They’ve had more time to think about it and now they don’t want to sell their land,” Wolfe said.

Wolfe said the district’s first choice has always been to purchase the land outright, but that was never a consideration for St. Edward’s leadership, said Rev. Gery Zerr.

“We had some preliminary discussions with the district about potentially selling or leasing a portion of the parish’s property. But we were never interested in selling all of the bare land that the district now wants to acquire. That would have a very detrimental impact on the parish’s future,” Zerr said.

Zerr said the school district came forward with an  “unacceptable appraisal of the bare land, far below the fair market value.” He added that no written offer for lease or purchase was ever made.

“In our view, the district’s discussions were not made in good faith.  Then, this past summer, the district told us that it wants to acquire all of our bare land. The district also told us in no uncertain terms that the parish has no choice in the matter – if we refuse to sell, the district will sue us and take 6.18 acres by eminent domain,” Zerr said.

In addition to Zerr, the St. Edward church business manager and chair of its facilities department have been included in the evaluation of the district’s proposals.

The school board held a reading of a resolution of necessity, the first step in starting eminent domain processes, at its meeting Tuesday, Oct. 23. School board members will vote on any next steps at its Nov. 13 meeting.

School District Spokesperson Lillian Govus was unable to comment on what led to the breakdown of negotiations, but added that construction at McNary for bond-paid improvements is still planned for 2019.

“We began negotiations nearly a year ago, so it was our hope that they would have been completed by this time,” Govus said.

The six acres being targeted for the eminent domain process would become softball fields and tennis courts, but it’s essential to expanding the number of classrooms, which is displacing existing fields and parking space. Reconfiguring parking is one of the highest priorities leading up to the bulk of the construction effort. The district’s goal is to establish a new traffic flow by the beginning of the 2019-20 school year. Keeping on track will require a deal for the church-owned land to be struck by Dec. 15, 2018.

Wolfe said the intent of the move is not to throw the church or its leadership “under the bus” but the district intends to move quickly to stay on its bond-funded construction schedule. If the eminent domain process is successful the church would still be compensated.

Zerr said the move toward exercising eminent domain was disappointing on several levels.

“The parish is disappointed with the school district’s approach on this matter, as we have always supported McNary and have been a good community supporter in the past. We are praying for a peaceful resolution, but we will, of course, have no choice but to defend our Constitutionally-guaranteed rights if the district follows through on its threat to sue us to take our property,” Zerr said.

The last time the school district used eminent domain processes to obtain land for schools was during the construction of Straub Middle School and Kalapuya Elementary School in West Salem.