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Cedar Rapids using eminent domain to acquire houses for flood control construction
Time Check resident’s home condemnation provides first test of city’s use of eminent domain for flood protection
CEDAR RAPIDS — The city of Cedar Rapids is gearing up to use eminent domain to acquire more properties in the Time Check area — a working-class neighborhood that was devastated by the 2008 flood — to build its permanent flood control system.
Remaining residents who didn’t take voluntary buyouts and have not negotiated a deal with the city now face more immediate pressure to sell or have their homes condemned through eminent domain proceedings. The city is beginning to make headway on permanent flood protection around the Northwest Neighborhood.
But some residents are preparing to put up a fight to either stay in their homes or get higher compensation for having to move to make way for the $750 million system of flood levees and gates intended to shield residents from rising Cedar River waters.
A condemnation hearing Wednesday morning at the Sheriff’s Office provided the first test that city officials and neighbors are looking to as the precedent for how future eminent domain proceedings may pan out. Another 15 to 20 residents may look to challenge the city’s move to acquire their houses.
Wednesday’s hearing before the Linn County Compensation Commission on Condemnation centered on the property at 1523 Fifth St. NW, where Matt Robinette lives. The six-member panel — mostly made up of people with real estate expertise — heard arguments from both the city and Robinette Wednesday, and also visited Robinette’s home to assess the exterior.
Robinette said he first received a letter from the city in the fall of 2021 informing him his home would need to be acquired for flood control.
Greg Vail, a neighbor speaking on Robinette’s behalf, said the compensation offer was $135,000 for the home Robinette has lived in since 1995. Offers are based on fair market value, not assessed value.
Vail said Robinette is willing to sell his three-bedroom, two-bath home, but has received inadequate offers. He said the city’s appraiser didn’t properly value the size of Robinette’s property with rooftop skylights, a hot tub, views of the Cedar River and recently updated infrastructure such as plumbing and heating.
Robinette told the commission he didn’t let an appraiser inside the house, attributing that to the COVID-19 pandemic and dogs he had at the time.
The city hired Russ Manternach to appraise the home. He acknowledged his experience is mostly with commercial appraisals.
“Matt is willing to sell his house,” Vail said. “He’s not trying to fight public use. He’s not trying to keep his property in an area that’s going to be in the way of the project. He’s just trying to get the amount of money that it’s going to take for him to buy another place.”
Ultimately, after a closed-session discussion, the commission unanimously agreed to increase Robinette’s offer to $150,000, with another $5,000 for moving assistance. Residents are eligible for up to $31,000 in relocation aid.
Robinette said he would look to hire an attorney to challenge the decision within the 30-day appeal window.
He said his home is a place where there’s ample room for him to entertain friends and for his dogs to run around the yard.
“It’s a unique property,” Robinette said.
According to a June memo from City Manager Jeff Pomeranz to the Cedar Rapids City Council, the Time Check area acquisition includes all properties from Q Avenue NW upstream to the north end of the flood control system where Ellis Lane NW meets the bluff by Ellis Park.
In the fall of 2021, according to the memo, the Public Works Department sent letters to owners of property between Ellis Park and Q Avenue NW, beginning acquisition for more than half the remaining Northwest Neighborhood properties needed for flood control work. Four additional properties between Penn Avenue NW and Q Avenue NW also are included in this phase of acquisitions.
As of June, the city anticipated 30 acquisitions remained in the Northwest Neighborhood. Not all of those would necessarily go through eminent domain proceedings if residents negotiated offers with the city.
Property owners were able to approach the city any time for a buyout until construction is imminent and a buyout becomes mandatory. That period has passed for about 1,300 eligible properties, most of which took the voluntary buyout.
Flood Control Program Manager Rob Davis provided the county panel with an outline of the flood levee running through Time Check at O Avenue NW and said the footprint of the flood control system goes over the subject property and sits on almost all of it.
The Cedar Rapids City Council in 2021 awarded $5.1 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to elevate a segment of O Avenue NW over the levee.
According to the city, properties cannot remain on the “wet side” of the flood control levee because the system will raise the water surface elevation of floods at the 100-year flood and higher, further endangering those properties.
Cedar Rapids resident Kathy Potts, a former Linn County GOP chair, wrote a letter to Iowa’s senior Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley asking him to leverage his powers to intervene and challenge city officials’ authority to acquire residents’ homes.
“With the evidence presented, it's clear that the City of Cedar Rapids has cynically seized upon its lower-income residents' lack of influence to take their homes,” Potts wrote. “These are everyday Iowans we're talking about; individuals who have done nothing wrong other than not having access to resources or connections like those enjoyed by many in a privileged position. This injustice must end, and these hardworking citizens should not have their land taken.”
Ajai Dittmar, a neighbor of Robinette’s who was wearing a “RIP Time Check” T-shirt at Wednesday’s hearing, said the property owners who didn’t take buyouts are the “redheaded stepchildren” of Cedar Rapids.
“There has always been an attempt to get rid of us,” Dittmar said, lamenting residents’ lack of choice to stay in this area of the west side.
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