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Supervisors Debate Merits Of Acquisition

By Staff | Jun 2, 2011

Purchasing right-of-way for construction projects is a fairly routine procedure, but a change in the way that the acquisitions is being done generated a discussion by the Palo Alto County Board of Supervisors in its weekly board meeting May 24. The discussion revolved around the rights of the adjacent landowner and the acquisition of right-of-way through standard easements or by fee-title.

Palo Alto County Engineer Joel Fantz explained why the Secondary Road Department had, in the past year, started purchasing right-of-way by using the fee-title method, where an actual title to the land acquired is executed by the county and the landowner, as opposed to a regular easement, where the landowner retains ownership and is compensated for the county’s use of the property.

“Understand that the county does pay the full price for the land,” Fantz noted, “The land owner still owns to the center of the road, but doesn’t pay taxes on that land in an easement, But, for years now, the Iowa DOT (Department of Transportation) has purchased right-of-way by the fee title method, and they and a lot of land experts, say fee-title is the best method to use it gives the county more protection.”

Board Chair Keith Wirtz noted that he had asked for the chance to learn more about the differences after being approached by landowners along the proposed B63 improvement project east of Mallard. At the same time, questions over the practice had also been raised by Craig Brownlee, a landowner along the North Bypass project east of Five Island Lake.

“There is actually no requirement for any landowner to go along with the fee title method,” Fantz noted. “The county can go with the easement method if the landowner prefers. But, if at some point in the future, the landowner wanted to convert the easement to a fee title, the landowner would have to bear the recording costs.”

Fantz continued, “We’re being told that counties need to buy right-of-way by fee title, but for our projects at Graettinger, Depew, Ayrshire and the N28 project, we used the easement method and probably bought around 150 parcels by easement. But from all we are being told, fee title is the best practice for us.”

“I think the big question here is will the landowners still control the ditches like they do now?” stated Supervisor Jerry Hofstad.

“That control will ultimately rest with the Board,” Fantz answered.

“As a land owner, I wouldn’t want to give up my property rights,” Supervisor Ed Noonan said.

“When you look at this, a landowner gives up quite a bit of property,” pointed out Craig Brownlee, who sat in on the discussion along with George Zech of Mallard. “When you buy land, you buy crop acres, versus gross acres.”

“That’s right,” agreed Zech, “You have to factor all that into your bid.”

“You give up a lot on a quarter,” Brownlee said.

“When land was $1,000 an acre that wasn’t too bad, but when land is $6,000, that’s a whole different thing,” Zech said.

When asked if the county would still maintain ditches, including tile, through construction, Wirtz assured the landowners that would not change, “But, we could make a policy to change that,” Noonan pointed out.

With a little better understanding of the concepts of the two methods, the discussion began to wind down.

“I asked for this opportunity because the people elected us and I want to hear what they think,” Wirtz said.

“That’s my feeling too,” agreed Hofstad.

“Just so we’re clear, if people want to go with the easement method, they can do so, is that right?” asked Supervisor Leo Goeders.

“Yes they can,” replied Fantz.

“I like the easement option,” Noonan said.

“I’d say we should go with what the majority of the people along B63 will want,” Wirtz offered.

“Yes, go along with what the majority wants,” agreed Hofstad. “The whole problem with this was that people just didn’t understand it very well.”

“I’d feel a lot better about it if we’d just go back to the easement method,” Noonan said.

“What I would recommend is that the board find a title expert to give an opinion,” Fantz suggested. “You could check with our bonding attorney, Bob Josten, and see if he had a recommendation.”

“I’d like that,” Wirtz said. “I think we need some more input.”

The board agreed that there would be a considerable amount of work to change existing fee title arrangements on the north and south bypass projects, but also asked Jon Wright, Assistant to the Engineer, to hold off on any acquisition of right of way for the B-63 project till the issue was resolved, to which Wright agreed.

:”I guess I would prefer the easement, but it would be a lot of work to change it,” agreed Brownlee.

“Let’s get some more opinions,” Wirtz said. “The biggest question about all of this is if you’re giving up control of the land in a fee title situation.”