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The Future Of Eminent Domain In Plano Is Under Fire

A longtime Montessori school owner in Plano, Texas, is in the middle of a contentious eminent domain dispute that has evolved into a push for stricter rules about when the city can take private property from a resident or business owner.

Effie Saifi with her daughter, Mina, at Montessori Children’s House.

The issue began four years ago when plans to build a bike trail near Hedgcoxe Road in the North Dallas suburb of Plano included an easement through land on the site of Effie Saifi's Montessori Children’s House, and the city declared its intention to take part of the site through its eminent domain authority.

Saifi claims the plan disrupts her long-term plans for the property, costing her economic harm by robbing her of the ability to expand. 

"That piece of property has been zoned and had its site plan approved in 2005 to expand the school to create more parking, a playground, classrooms and all the things we need to have for the current operations we have now as well as for future operations," Saifi said. "[The eminent domain dispute] is impacting and disabling me as a director and teacher, and the members of my family in many different aspects — financially, emotionally, health-wise. All aspects of my life and my family's life have been impacted negatively."

She argues the taking will also reduce the value of her property and pose a safety risk for the students on her site. 

There is a growing practice of cities using eminent domain for the creation of bike trails under the theory that they are non-recreational transportation lanes for those without cars, but the practice is controversial, according to The Wall Street Journal.

In Plano, the issue has prompted supporters of the school and of Saifi to push back with a petition asking the city council to enact a new ordinance that constricts Plano's use of eminent domain.

The city spent the past week verifying the more than 4,400 signatures required to get what is called an initiative petition up for a city council or public vote. The initiative petition process allows citizens with enough votes to get the city council to consider the passage of a new ordinance, said Lisa Henderson, a representative with the city of Plano.

A special hearing will be held Tuesday night with an official statement from the city made available shortly thereafter, a spokesperson for the city told Bisnow Monday. 

"The council can enact the legislation that is attached or they can call an election," Henderson said. 

If the council doesn't act on the legislation, it will then be put on an election ballot in November for Plano voters to decide. It isn't the route Saifi said she wanted to take, but she said after years of fighting she had no other choice. 

Saifi said the city decided to take her land without fair consideration or without contemplating what she said were three alternative paths in the area. She also said the plan for compensating her is grossly inadequate and unfair. 

"It is called just compensation," Saifi said. "It's not just a number on the square feet of the easement multiplied by 10 or 15. Just compensation by law means the market value of the price of that part that is taken, plus the damage to the remainder. The damage to the remainder is 1.7 acres of my land, including my building considering the impact that is going to have on everything. It is not just the easement they are taking."

Bisnow reached out to a spokesperson for the city to comment on Saifi's specific allegations and to ask why Plano continued to pursue the measure. In response, the spokesperson said more information would be sent out after the council members consider the petition measure on Tuesday night. 

Eminent domain nationally and on the local level has been a prickly issue for cities and property owners ever since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 ruled in its Kelo v. New London opinion that a city can take a private property under the public use legal theory even if some of the area's usage is entangled with a private developer's project because the economic development plan as a whole qualifies as a public use. 

Texas lawmakers balked at Kelo at the time, and the state created a stronger litmus test for when a taking is acceptable as a "public use" and tried to further protect property rights under Chapter 2206 of the government code while allowing takings exceptions for transportation projects, public buildings and parks, among other uses. 

But proponents backing Saifi and her school, which include Dallas area lawyers who used to be students at Saifi's school, spoke out at a special hearing last week and are now pushing for Plano to adopt a new ordinance that would more narrowly tailor eminent domain takings in Plano.

The new ordinance would in many cases require permission from the property owners losing the land and eliminate the possibility of a private taking unless there are no other alternatives available. 

For Saifi, getting to this point has been a long four-year process and one that has cost her time, money and toil, but she said it's worth it. 

"I never gave up, and I wanted to show a good example for my teachers, for members of the community, and for my students. I am going to stand up for what is right and that is the most important lesson that I can teach," Saifi said.