SIOUX CITY | Brad Lepper isn't against recreational trails. He just doesn't want one cutting through the backyard of his property.

It appears he's getting one anyway, though, as Sioux City works through the process of compelling him to sell nearly 9,000 square feet of land and more than 15,000 square feet in easements for the Big Sioux River Recreational Trail project. 

The city is using eminent domain to acquire the stretch of Lepper's land in the 800 block of Bruner Avenue in Riverside. The elbow-shaped segment travels through the backyard of rental town homes he owns and up the side of an adjacent property where his family lives. Both properties sit in a relatively secluded area along dead-end street and provide an unencumbered view of a scenic bend in the Big Sioux River.

Lepper, a local entrepreneur, is now locked in what could become a lengthy legal battle with the city over a fair price for the property.

It's a battle he didn't want, but one that carries the potential to be costly for him. 

That's because Sioux City has appealed the $34,000 amount named as a fair purchase price by the Woodbury County Compensation Commission, which oversees eminent domain matters. In the appeal, which is filed in Woodbury County District Court, the city contends the commission's total is too high. It had originally offered Lepper just under $16,500 for the property. 

Lepper, who had agreed to take the $34,000 named by the commission prior to the city's appeal, now plans to represent himself during the appeal to avoid the potentially staggering costs of a lawyer. 

Under Iowa's eminent domain law, Lepper must show the commission undervalued his property by at least $1 in order for the city to cover his legal fees. If he does not -- even if the court sides against the city and with the commission's amount -- Lepper would have to foot his own bills.

"I’m put in a position where I could go to court, and I could win in the grand scheme of things," Lepper said. "But if I don’t beat (the commission's) award by a dollar, I have to pay all my own legal fees."

Provided
This photograph shows the land needed for easements and acquisition for the Riverside Recreation Trail Project.

The power of eminent domain allows public entities to take private land for public use, provided it compensates the property owners. 

According to city documents, the land Sioux City wants at 817 Bruner Ave. includes three temporary construction easements totaling 5,576 square feet, a permanent easement of 9,991 square feet and an 8,976-square-foot portion to be acquired in fee title. 

Lepper said the city originally approached him about a year ago to discuss the property, which lies along the planned route of the Big Sioux River Recreational Trail, a .7-mile connection that will stretch from Florence Avenue south to Riverside Park. The city contends the land is vital to the construction of the trail and that there is no alternate route. 

Lepper said he doesn't want the trail on his property because it will affect the privacy he values and could pose a safety risk, especially for renters with young children.

"Who knows who could be coming back here?" Lepper said. "There will be people using this trail at night or the middle of the night. And there’s no way for us to stop it."

After he was approached, Lepper offered an alternate route to the city, a route that would cut to the side of one of his properties and cross a dead-end street instead, then cross onto another property he owns. He pitched the idea to city staff and later mentioned it to the Sioux City Council on June 5, saying he would donate that land. 

City staff pointed out that the land would have cut within a few feet of a private deck and would require the city to clear a grove of trees.

"The main issue is where it gets really, really narrow," Parks and Recreation director Matt Salvatore told the council during the meeting. 

Salvatore

Lepper offered to move the deck, but the city declined the offer and voted to initiate the eminent domain process. Lepper said the city will need to remove trees regardless of which route the trail takes. 

The city had offered to pay Lepper $16,420 based on an appraisal that took into account three properties, and Lepper contends none of them are accurate. One, which was valued higher than his property, sits near the river but has an embankment blocking the view, and the other two sit in the country and have several differences. 

Lepper had responded to the city's offer with a higher price, but the city declined. Lepper said he never received a counter-offer. 

When the matter went before the Woodbury County Compensation Commission, the next step in the eminent domain process, the commission ruled the city's appraisal was not completely accurate and that it should pay Lepper more than double -- $34,000 -- a number that was higher than Lepper's original offer to the city.

Commission meeting minutes state the commission members viewed the site and "did not feel the comps (comparable properties listed in the appraisal) were applicable."

"It validated that what I was asking for was very reasonable," Lepper said of the commission's award.

The city, at the direction of the City Council, then appealed the commission's decision in Woodbury County District Court, saying the commission's price was too high.

Assistant City Attorney Amber Hegarty declined a request for comment by the Journal on the reason for the appeal, citing the ongoing litigation. 

Lepper, who is responsible for opposing the city, must now not only prove the Commission's ruling was correct but also that it should have been at least $1 higher, in order to not have to foot his own legal fees. 

For that reason, he will be representing himself in the case, looking to avoid the potential costs of hiring a lawyer and purchasing an appraisal, which he believes could cancel out the benefit of receiving the commission's award.

"You’re going to have $20,000 to $25,000 tied up in all these expenses to get to trial," he said.

Lepper said his decision to fight the appeal is not really about the money; he would rather just receive a fair price and be left alone.

"I’m not asking for $200,000 here. I’m not trying to win the lottery," he said. "Just make me whole, and let’s be done with this and leave me alone."

The city's own legal team will handle its end of the appeal. Hegarty said she does not have an estimate of what its own costs could be to move forward with the case. 

In the meantime, the city has deposited the full $34,000 with the Woodbury County Sheriff's Office, which means the city can move forward with the trail construction project as the court decides upon the final amount. Hegarty said the city legally has ownership of the land but not the title at this point in the process. 

Salvatore said the Big Sioux River Recreational Trail project could now begin early next year. Construction documents could go before the council in February and bids could come by the spring, he said. 

Hegarty and Salvatore told the Journal they couldn't remember a time in recent history the city has used that power for a trail project. 

The last time Sioux City used eminent domain was in relation to the Jackson Street reconstruction project, when the city in July 2016 acquired a portion of Family Dollar's property for a traffic signal.

Lepper and Hegarty both told the Journal a settlement is not out of the question. Lepper said his hope is that the city will pay him the $34,000, move forward with the project, and bring an end to the languishing process. 

"What I want is just drop the appeal, pay me what the commission says it’s worth, and just leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone," Lepper said.

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