CCRC wins right to use eminent domain in reservoir project

It’s been many years in the making, but Clarke County Reservoir Commission (CCRC) finally had its day in court.

On April 8, Judge Sherman W. Phipps of the Fifth Judicial District of Iowa ruled CCRC’s ongoing Squaw Creek Watershed project is for a public use, public purpose or public improvement as defined in the Iowa Code.

Therefore, CCRC may use the power of declaratory judgment and eminent domain in the reservoir project.

Declaratory judgment is a court review for acquiring land for a public project. It authorizes CCRC to purchase land from voluntary sellers and exercise eminent domain for involuntary sellers within the area of the watershed project. Eminent domain is the government’s power to take private property for public use by a state.

“I’m excited because it’s an indication that we can now proceed with our process,” said Osceola Mayor Fred Diehl, who also represents the city of Osceola on the CCRC.

What is the project?

CCRC’s ongoing reservoir project could provide a water supply for Osceola and Southern Iowa Rural Water Association (SIRWA) with an 816-acre lake, which could provide 2.2 million gallons of water per day.

West Lake, the current water source, doesn’t meet the needs of Clarke County and SIRWA.

The total project cost for the reservoir in the CCRC Squaw Creek Watershed is estimated at $37.6 million. Funding for the project includes many sources, especially funding from the local-option sales tax.

Financially feasible

According to court documents, Scott Stevenson, a public finance banker and senior vice president with D.A. Davidson and Co., testified in the court proceedings. Stevenson’s job involves analysis of feasibility of proposed financing for public projects.

Stevenson analyzed CCRC’s reservoir project financial plan and testified the commission shows funding sufficient to pay for the project.

According to court documents, “While (Stevenson) acknowledged that actual construction costs, interests rates and sources of funding might change before the project was actually completed, he still expressed the opinion that the commission will be able to finance the total costs of the project and that it is a feasible plan.”

Defendants offered no evidence to contradict Stevenson’s testimony, court documents state.

In court proceedings, R. Dan Lovett, a licensed professional engineer, testified the Squaw Creek Watershed, which is located in northern Clarke County, is still the least costly alternative.

Recreational purposes?

A major issue in the reservoir project is the concern of a government agency taking private land for recreational use and purposes.

Officials stated in court documents the Clarke County Water Supply Plan — Environmental Impact Study dated May 2011 recites the development of “a high quality public recreation area that will fill a portion of the area’s unmet demand for water-based recreation” as a purpose for the project.

However, Mark Duben, a licensed professional engineer, made “it clear that water-based recreational uses had been eliminated from and were not part of the design,” through a letter, trial testimony and review of Clarke County Water Supply Plan — Environment Impact Statement dated August 2013, according to court documents.

Beck shares what’s next

As for questions about the next step in the reservoir project, David Beck, the reservoir project’s coordinator, said the process now begins for CCRC acquire land.

Is the litigation completely over with?

Beck said it’s basically done, however, there is a stipulation. He said any landowner (or defendant) in the court proceedings has 30 days to appeal the court’s decision. That 30 days started April 8.

If there are no appeals, the decision would stand and the process of acquiring land continues.

According to Beck, CCRC will start meeting with landowners, as well as acquiring appraisals and fair market values on the land. He said he is hoping offers will be made late this summer.

“It’ll be a little while here as the process unfolds,” Beck said. “... I think that’s not a bad estimate.”

As of right now, CCRC is working on an agenda for its May 8 meeting.

“It’s still satisfying because it was a necessary step we had to go through, and we were successful getting through it,” Diehl said. “We’re excited.”