Denfeld News

Jan. 24, 2008
Duluth News Tribune

Duluth schools consolidation plan: District eyes nearby lots
By Sarah Horner

Thirty-nine homeowners in Duluth got life-changing news in the mail Tuesday: a certified letter from the Duluth school district stating its intention to buy their homes.

The properties will accommodate expansions at six schools scheduled for construction under the district’s long-range facilities plan. The list was announced to the public at a news conference Wednesday at the central administration offices in Old Historic Central High School.

Reaction was mixed among people affected by the announcement. Some said they were eager to strike a deal with the district, and others said they didn’t want to sell and were angry about being left out of the process.

The district has the authority to use eminent domain to purchase properties if an agreement can’t be reached, said Kerry Leider, property and risk manager for the Duluth district. Eminent domain allows the district to purchase land and forces an owner to sell.

“We don’t want to have to go there,” Leider said. “We really are going to do everything we can to negotiate reasonable terms so that when we’re done, people feel like they’ve been treated fairly in this process.”

The district is seeking 41 properties, two of which don’t have houses on them. Eleven are across the street from Denfeld High School, two near Congdon Park Elementary, five by Ordean Middle School, eight by Lester Park Elementary, 11 by Laura MacArthur Elementary and four by Grant Elementary. About $9 million has been budgeted for the purchase of properties, Leider said.

The district needs the land to bring the school sites closer to guidelines outlined by the Minnesota Department of Education. Current site sizes are substantially smaller than what is recommended, Leider said. Many of the properties will be turned into parking areas; others will be used for green space and other amenities.

“This is an important step toward the school district improving our schools and our community,” he said.

In addition to receiving a letter in the mail, homeowners were called or visited Tuesday. Those who weren’t home and were unlisted in the phone book got a note taped to their front door, said Natalie Hoff, the vice president of F.I. Salter, a local real estate services firm assisting the district with property acquisition.

All homeowners are being asked to arrange meetings with the district and representatives from F.I. Salter to begin talking about the appraisal and sale process, Hoff said. The district will cover all document and closing costs and is willing to help arrange relocation assistance and cover some moving expenses.

“Everybody’s life situation is different, so it’s really important to sit down face-to-face and figure out where people are coming from so we can find a way to make this work,” Hoff said.

So far the district has heard from 10 homeowners.

“We already know from the personal contacts we’ve had that there will be the full gamut of emotion on this,” Superintendent Keith Dixon said. “From people saying, ‘I don’t want this to happen,’ to the other end when one property owner said, ‘You are a gift from heaven.’ ”

“Property acquisition is never easy. Our goal is to solve this amicably with every property owner,” he said.

The district hopes to acquire the property by spring 2009. Additional property may be acquired for the construction of a new western middle school and the Lincoln Park/Piedmont Elementary School, which probably will be determined in February.

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