City moves to seize land for rain forest

Condemnation hearing set for Nov. 10

Brian Sharp

Iowa City Press-Citizen

September 29, 2004

CORALVILLE -- City officials have initiated condemnation proceedings against a property owner who stands in the way of a planned $180 million indoor rain forest and education center.

City Administrator Kelly Hayworth said the city asked a judge to appoint a compensation committee to place a value on property owned by Jere and Ruth Wissink. The committee hearing is Nov. 10. Included are several lots, with at least the 211 E. 10th St. home of Holiday Wrecker needed for the rain forest.

"We just felt that we are so far apart, there wasn't any reason to wait any longer," Hayworth said.

It marks the first time the city has resorted to condemnation in the old industrial park, southeast of Interstate 80 and First Avenue. City officials envision the rain forest and a $60 million Marriott hotel and conference center helping spur redevelopment of the area. The city began buying properties north of Ninth Street a couple of years ago.

"This is one of the largest ones we've ever done," Councilor Henry Herwig said of the Wissink condemnation. "Generally, it's for an easement, a street or something, just a piece. ... It's a pretty serious thing."

The combined assessed value of the Wissinks' 5.68 acres stood at nearly $3.2 million last year. Wissink did not return a phone message Tuesday. Hayworth said he expects negotiations with three other remaining property owners to reach a resolution in the weeks ahead.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to revisit when governments may seize people's homes and businesses for economic development projects.

The high court specifically will hear a New London, Conn., case in which city officials want to raze homes to make way for a riverfront hotel, health club and offices. The city argued its plans serve a "public purpose" -- such as boosting economic growth -- are valid "public use" projects that outweigh the homeowners' property rights

Justices last dealt with the condemnation issue 20 years ago. The court unanimously ruled then that Hawaii could take land from large property owners and resell it to others, and determined that decisions about takings were best left to elected leaders.

Nationwide, more than 10,000 properties were threatened or condemned between 1998 and 2002, according to the Institute for Justice. In many cases, according to the group, cities are pushing the limits of their powers to accommodate wealthy developers.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.