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School district’s condemnation of a private road passes the test

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By: Erica Stutman

The power of eminent domain allows a government or quasi-governmental entity to condemn (take) private property for a public use upon a showing of necessity.  In exchange, the property owner must receive “just compensation” equal to the property’s fair market value, and may be entitled to additional damages, such as severance damages, relocation expenses, costs, or interest.  The eminent domain powers of school districts and other political subdivisions is set forth in A.R.S. § 12-1111.

In Catalina Foothills Unified School District No. 16 v. La Paloma Property Owners Association, the Arizona Court of Appeals confirmed that a school district may condemn a private road for vehicles to enter a school campus.  The superior court allowed the school district to condemn a private road owned by La Paloma subdivision, which was adjacent to the school campus, because student safety necessitated vehicular access into the school from that private road.  The school district granted a perpetual easement for La Paloma property owners to use the road to access the subdivision.  A jury awarded La Paloma the road’s fair market value and $56,416 for cost-to-cure severance damages.

On appeal, La Paloma argued that the school district lacked power to condemn a road because A.R.S. § 12-1111(3) permits eminent domain for “buildings and grounds for the use of a … school district,” without mentioning roads.  The court found that this statutory authority necessarily permits condemning property to access such “buildings and grounds.”  The court also rejected La Paloma’s contention that the taking was not in fee simple; the easement conveyance did not change the nature of the interest.

The jury’s award for the road’s fair market value was not disputed on appeal, but La Paloma argued that it was entitled to additional severance damages.  Severance damages are meant to compensate an owner for any reduced value of the remaining property, but may be decreased if the cost to cure the condition is less than the value reduction.  The parties agreed the cost to alter the road’s landscaping and signage due to the taking was $56,416, and the jury awarded this as cost-to-cure severance damages.  The jury found that La Paloma was not entitled to further severance damages because the easement to La Paloma cured any reduction in property value, and this was upheld on appeal.

While Catalina Foothills challenged both the authority to condemn and the amount of damages, the right to condemn is often undisputed because the government can usually show that a taking is for public use and necessary.  Therefore, the primary disputed issue in condemnation actions is the amount of compensation, which is often determined based on the parties’ competing expert testimony and appraisals.