Lawrence city commissioners are set to use their eminent domain powers — and pay about $115,000 in the process — to acquire an East Lawrence property that has deteriorated for decades but managed to avoid city prosecution.
Commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting will consider paying the court-ordered amount of $114,500 to acquire the old house, barn and real estate at 1106 Rhode Island St.
Commissioners this summer decided to use the eminent domain process to acquire the property against the wishes of its owner, the estate of Raymond F. Barland. Commissioners made the decision after they became convinced the late 1800s home and yard — which previously was filled with old Packard automobiles — wasn't going to be brought up to city codes any other way. The city plans to accept proposals from developers who are interested in bringing the property up to city code, preserving the house and adjacent barn and protecting the historical integrity of the site, which once housed a prominent dray wagon business.
"We want to see how quickly we can get someone turning this eyesore into an asset," City Manager David Corliss said.
But city officials on Monday confirmed a point that wasn't clear throughout the eminent domain process: City officials have no record of ever trying to prosecute and fine the property's owners for violating a host of property maintenance codes.
City officials sent multiple notices of violation to the property's owners, beginning in 2010, but City Attorney Toni Wheeler said there was no record the city had ever filed a case in Municipal Court. Wheeler said the condition of the property and the age of Barland's widow — she is in her 90s — caused the city to opt against filing a suit. Fines for violations of the property maintenance code can be as high as $500 per day.
Why the city hadn't prosecuted the case years earlier wasn't clear. Barland died in 2004, but it is generally agreed the deterioration of the property began decades before then.
Corliss, though, said he didn't think the case was a sign that the city's system for enforcing code violations was broken.
"I think you can look at this and say this is the exception that proves the rule," Corliss said. "We don't have too many of these situations. We usually get good compliance."
Wheeler said to her knowledge this is the first time the city has used its eminent domain powers for the purpose of stopping further deterioration of an old home. Corliss said he expects the use of eminent domain for such purposes in the future will be rare.
Commissioners had tried to work out an agreement with members of the Barland estate that would have avoided the use of eminent domain. Commissioners delayed the eminent domain process to give the estate time to clean up the property or find a buyer for the site. But commissioners last summer agreed to move ahead with eminent domain after judging not enough progress had been made at the site.
The $114,500 amount to be paid by the city was determined by a trio of independent appraisers appointed by Douglas County District Court. The city had suggested a price of about $95,000, Wheeler said. She said the Barland estate had suggested about a $150,000 price. An attempt to reach a representative with the estate wasn't successful on Monday.
Corliss said a request for proposals to rehabilitate the property, if approved by commissioners, could be issued within the next few weeks. Lawrence architect Stan Hernly previously had put forward a plan to convert the house into a rehabilitated and expanded rental property and the barn into an office space. But Hernly, who made the proposal last summer, also said he may need some city financial support to make the project feasible.
Corliss said he didn't have a good sense for how many other proposals may be submitted to the city, or whether they would seek financial assistance from the city to rehabilitate the property.
Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.