UI made to pay $9,750 an acre for land

UI made to pay $9,750 an acre for land

URBANA – A Champaign County jury has ordered that the University of Illinois pay a Champaign woman $9,750 an acre for farmland she owns that the UI wants.

The amount is about half of what Renee Lo, 67, had hoped that the jury would award her for 132 acres she owns south of Urbana that lies in the heart of the area that the UI has earmarked for its expansion of the South Farms.

Lo's property lies in an area that is east of First Street in Champaign and west of Race Street in Urbana. The southern edge of her property is along Old Church Road. The Embarras River is the property's northern border. The parcel is on the east side of Wright Street extended.

Before filing the condemnation suit in Champaign County Circuit Court on March 30, 2005, the UI initially offered Lo $5,000 an acre. She rejected that offer and others made by the UI. The state has the right, through eminent domain, to take private land for public use. The jury's job is to come up with a fair market price.

Judge Chase Leonhard began hearing the trial Tuesday; the jury deliberated just under two hours.

The UI was represented by Bloomington attorney Robert Neirynck. Champaign attorney Jim Martinkus represented Lo. Both men have represented the UI and farmland owners in two other South Farms condemnation cases that went to trial.

In those, the landowners got $13,500 and $8,800 per acre. Two other condemnation proceedings involving one large tract, filed in 2003, were settled out of court with the landowners being paid $10,800 per acre. No other eminent domain cases are pending.

As in the other cases that went to trial, the jury took a bus ride to the property to see it, then heard from appraisers hired by the UI and by Lo.

And, as in the other cases, the UI-hired appraisers maintained that the "highest and best use" of the property was for agriculture, while the Lo appraisers maintained its value should be based on the potential to build homes there, thus making its value greater.

The four appraisers' values ranged from a low of $5,300 per acre to a high of $24,242.

"This would never sell at agriculture prices," Martinkus argued, maintaining that Lo's property was clearly in the path of development, noting residential subdivisions being developed in nearby Savoy.

But Neirynck said that development is west of First Street, not east, where her property is, and that there is no current sanitary sewer service or water to the property.

"You need to be fair,"he said. "That's what the law asks you to do."

In September 2000, the UI board of trustees adopted a resolution to begin acquiring properties for the South Farms move though negotiation or eminent domain if negotiation didn't work. The area targeted for the expansion is generally bounded by First Street on the west, Curtis Road on the north, Philo Road extended on the east and Airport Road on the south.

UI spokesman Tom Hardy said that amounts to about 2,500 acres total and so far, the UI has about half of what it wants.

"We've acquired 12 farms and have about 16 pieces of property left to go," said Hardy, noting that the UI has filed condemnation proceedings in court on only four properties, three of which have gone to trial.

"A significant amount of the South Farms development has already taken place or is under way," Hardy said.

Martinkus said he interpreted the jury's award as a rejection of the UI's contention that "this is only farmland."

"Clearly it shows they thought this was in the path of development," he said.

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