DES MOINES — Can the power of eminent domain be transferred from the county board of supervisors to a regional airport authority on an irrevocable basis?
That was largely the issue in the Iowa Supreme Court on Thursday as parties to the South Central Regional Airport Authority case presented their arguments.
Additionally, the cities argued that if the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in favor of the county and the landowners, it would pave the way for the “breaking” of the 28E intergovernmental agreements statewide to the detriment of many. public projects.
The arguments lasted about 40 minutes on Thursday. The court will make a decision at a later date.
The case went to the Iowa Supreme Court through an appeal by Mahaska County and landowners after district court judges previously upheld the 28E Agreement that formed the SCRAA was valid and concluded that the county was in breach of contract.
Lawyers for the Mahaska County Board of Supervisors and the Site A Landowners Group said that while county power over eminent domain can be delegated, in the case of SCRAA it was not done properly. .
“The fatal failure … is that the next elected could not step down,” said Michael Reck, an attorney representing Mahaska County.
“We have several cases that … support the proposition that the sentencing power is a legislative power and is subject to voter accountability,” said Tyler Smith, an attorney for the landowners at the proposed airport site.
The county also challenged the delegation of zoning and road relocation powers to the SCRAA board. They argued that the SCRAA was created as is – with one county vote against five others from the two cities – so that the authority would “survive any election”.
SCRAA was established in 2012 when the Mahaska County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved it. Opposition began almost immediately afterward and has persisted over the years with the election of new supervisors who have since undertaken multiple attempts to get the county out of the deal.
Mark Weinhardt, the litigator on behalf of Pella and Oskaloosa, said the court should uphold previous rulings to avoid unrealistic impacts not just for the South Central Regional Airport project, but for any other project undertaken by entities formed by 28E agreements in Iowa.
Weinhardt posed a hypothesis to the judges. What if the project was more advanced – the tracks leveled and the paving started, the electrical wiring started and the concrete pads for the sheds sunk?
“And then there’s an election in Mahaska County and the Mahaska County Board of Supervisors changes its mind and says, ‘Stop, we’re out, no more construction,'” he said. -he put. “And oh, by the way, if there was condemnation land and these people are now challenging the compensation they’re entitled to, they get the land instead; rebar, gravel, and everything.
“That, legally speaking, is exactly the same case as this case. In order to avoid this kind of ridiculous collision between law and practice, this court should affirm the judgments of the district courts.”
County attorneys and landowners argued that under Iowa Code 6A.22, SCRAA could not exercise eminent domain power for the proposed airport land, which sits near Leighton in an unincorporated area of the county.
Weinhardt disagreed, saying SCRAA has the ability to acquire land as an entity itself within Mahaska County, and that Oskaloosa could also do so under Code 364.4. of Iowa, which allows cities to condemn unincorporated land for a municipal airport.
Justice Brent Appel said he disagreed with removing eminent domain from the political process.
“We all know that eminent domain is often very controversial,” Appel said. “I guess the power of eminent domain, which is normally subject to this political process, is now somehow buried in this 28E entity and a past majority is able to bind a future majority of political actors.”
Weinhardt said those affected by the land condemnation could voice their opposition at a hearing with SCRAA as part of the process. “It was never required to be in front of elected officials – it often happens that way, but the law doesn’t require it.”
In conclusion, Weinhardt said 28E agreements are not like social media, where a participant can simply decide to “opt out” of other government agencies.
“There are public projects all over the state watching this one because no public project is without naysayers,” Weinhardt said. “No public project enjoys universal support, and if the door is opened to breaking 28E deals like this, they either won’t happen or they’ll end up with half-built public projects.”
Reck had a different take on the script.
“The fact that the electorate can intervene and decide that they no longer want to pursue a project is the great glory of our democracy,” he said. “We’re being asked to treat it like it’s a bad thing. It’s not.”
Reck asked the judges that if voters don’t want the airport, and therefore the project doesn’t move forward, is that awful? “…or is our system of government acting exactly as it should?” He asked.