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City renews threat of eminent domain at dilapidated East Lawrence property

All we need is Donald Trump and his mop of hair to make this real estate deal more interesting.

City commissioners find themselves in the middle of a unique real estate transaction that is focused on 1106 Rhode Island St. in East Lawrence. As we've previously reported, commissioners have become concerned about the dilapidated condition of the old house and barn on the property, which is just east of the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center.

Members of the Barland family own the property. They've cleaned up much of the yard, including holding a much-publicized auction of old Packard automobiles that had accumulated at the site.

But the condition of the vacant house and barn is still in rough shape. The city has said the Barland family needs to either fix it, sell it to someone who will or — here's where it gets pretty unique — the city will use eminent domain to take over ownership of the property.

The city started the eminent domain process in February, but hasn't yet taken the next step in the process. In the meantime, at least one buyer — and perhaps up to three — have emerged for the property.

Lawrence architect Stan Hernly has confirmed that he's put together an investment group to buy the property and rehabilitate the house and barn. The house would become a 3-bedroom, 2-bath rental house, and an addition would allow for a 1-bedroom, 1-bath apartment. The barn would be converted into about 2,700 square feet of professional office space.

But Hernly and the Barland family haven't yet agreed on a price. City commissioners at their meeting this week pulled out their eminent domain hammer to try to move the process along. Commissioners gave the Barland family three weeks to either accept or reject Hernly's offer. If a deal for the property isn't struck in the three-week period, city commissioners all agreed that they'll take the next step in the eminent domain process.

But members of the Barland family said they also are negotiating with two other parties. Brian Barland said said those deals may not produce the same type of development as Hernly's proposal, but the buyers appear willing to best Hernly's offer for the property. (Details about the other potential developments or about Hernly's offer for the property haven't been disclosed.)

Barland said his family is working through the process of evaluating what is best for the property and what is best for their financial interests. Whether that process will be completed in three weeks remains to be seen.

Brian Barland did remind commissioners that the condition of this property didn't happen overnight. The decline of the property occurred over several decades, mainly under the watch of Barland's late father. The city has codes and a fine structure to address such neglect of property, but it is not clear how much the city ever pursued that path.

"It took 50 years to get to this point," Barland said. "It is not going to take 50 years to make a deal happen. But it does take some time to come up with a fair price for the property."

The conversation rankled City Commissioner Terry Riordan, who has restored several homes and lives in an Oread house that is on the National Register of Historic Places.

"We now have someone who wants to save this house, and now we're arguing about money," Riordan said to Barland. "Doesn't it bother you some that you caused this? Isn't there any interest in trying to save that house? What we really should be talking about is preservation."

It also remains to be seen whether Hernly's project will have everything it needs to proceed, even if it does secure the property. Hernly provided information to the city indicating that he would be seeking an approximately $40,000 "development grant" from the city to make the proposed $800,000 project pencil out.

Commissioners this week gave no indication whether they would support such a grant request.

There's also still the possibility that the Barland family may choose to take its chances with the eminent domain process. That process will require the city to pay for the property. The price would be determined by Douglas County District Court, which reviews a set of appraisals to make its determination.

If the city ends up with the property, it plans to take proposals and sell the property to a party interested in restoring the structures.

In case you are wondering why the city doesn't just take the more traditional route of declaring the structure unsafe and ordering it repaired or either demolished, the house and barn do have some interesting history behind them that would cause historic preservationists to balk at their demolition. The house dates back to 1871 and the barn was also constructed near then. Both served as the headquarters for the city's largest dray wagon business, which was run by a colorful Irish man named Rhody Delahunty.

The house and barn already are included in a broader historic district that includes the area just east of the Douglas County Courthouse. So, if the city allowed the structures to be torn down, it would be doing exactly what it says it doesn't want people to do in historic areas.

As I said, the only thing that would make this deal more interesting is Donald Trump. Maybe he can lend us one of his celebrity apprentices. Perhaps Dennis Rodman to the rescue?

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