Saturday, December 6, 2003

Boone couple fighting to save farmland lose round in court

Staff and wire reports

FRANKFORT - A Boone County couple fighting to prevent condemnation of their farmland for a sewage plant lost another round Friday in the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

Donald and Marion Stites tried to challenge the constitutionality of a law that empowers the secretary of the Natural Resources Cabinet to establish sanitation districts in any county.

The district in question, Sanitation District No. 1, serves Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties. Its governing board, exercising its power of eminent domain, took steps in 1999 to condemn 144 acres of the Stiteses' property - nearly a third of their farm on the Ohio River.

The farm, owned by the Stiteses since 1972 and in Marion Stites' family for nearly 60 years, is between Petersburg and Bellview in western Boone County.

"We are very disappointed, and our attorneys believe there are flaws in the decision," Donald Stites said. "We are definitely planning to continue the appeal."

Sanitation District General Manager Jeff Eger said the decision is one step closer to end the legal battle that has put construction of the plant two years behind schedule.

"We are pleased to have the decision. It upheld what we believe is our constitutional right," he said. "This will allow us to move forward to implement this facility plan."

Initially, the sanitation district offered to buy the land for $6,000 per acre, but the Stiteses refused.

Boone County Circuit Court Judge Jay Bamberger ruled in the district's favor last year and set a significantly lower price - $518,000, which was $3,597 per acre.

The couple appealed, contending the district had no right to take their property at any cost.

A three-judge appellate panel upheld the lower court and said the Stiteses had no "standing" to challenge the statute.

The panel agreed that the Stiteses "suffered a distinct and palpable injury" when their property was condemned.

However, "we conclude that the Stiteses have failed to establish any causal relationship" between their "injury" and the disputed statute, the appeals court said in an opinion by Judge Rick A. Johnson of Mayfield.

Because of the statute, the judge-executives of Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties had to review the proposed land acquisition in a public meeting, which took place in July 2000. There were arguments on both sides, after which the judges endorsed the proposed condemnation.

"The statute, at the very least, provides property owners with an additional level of review by local officials prior to the institution of a condemnation proceeding by a sanitation district," Johnson's opinion said.

In a second part of the decision, the appeals court made the same lack-of-standing ruling against Maria Garriga, who sued to challenge the law in Kenton County as a customer of the sanitation district.

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