Petition To Revamp Plano's Eminent Domain Laws Stalls, Mayor Blasts 'Misinformation Campaign'
Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere pushed back during a special city council meeting over Zoom Tuesday night at what he called a massive "misinformation campaign" against the city, city staff and the council in the midst of a controversial four-year eminent domain battle between Plano and the owner of the Montessori Children’s House on Hedgcoxe Road.
As Bisnow reported earlier this week, the school's owner, Effie Saifi, collected thousands of signatures as part of an initiative petition action designed to force the city council to vote on the repeal of a 2017 ordinance involving the school property and to enact new eminent domain rules in Plano that would restrict how and when the city can exercise its power of eminent domain.
Saifi alleges the city's initiative for the creation of a bike trail across her school property will upend plans approved in 2005 to expand the school with more parking, a playground and classrooms. She also alleges the taking would create a seven-figure loss and said the value of the taking put forth by the city is grossly inadequate and unfair.
The city disagrees.
"We have negotiated in good faith to come to a reasonable conclusion," the mayor said Tuesday. "In the meantime, I have seen a campaign of falsehood ... where the big bad city is trampling over this small business. Anybody who has lived in this city and has had any touchpoints with our city staff and council members knows that is completely contrary to how we operate as a city."
The Plano city secretary told Plano council members during Tuesday's meeting that the Montessori school's owner failed to obtain enough validated signatures to call a public vote asking the council to consider revamping and tightening Plano's rules for the taking of private property through eminent domain.
City staff noted that some of the returned signatures lacked compliance with the city's charter by failing to include critical information like birthdates, voter registration numbers and identifiable addresses. At least a few signatures came from those not registered to vote in the county, a city representative said.
"The City has made every effort to provide citizens with forms and instructions on our website to help facilitate the citizen petition process," the city said in a statement. "Still, the petitions submitted were non-compliant with state and city charter law."
City Attorney Paige Mims also pushed back on the proposed eminent domain ordinance, saying it conflicts with city and state law and is not enforceable by the city.
Saifi told Bisnow Tuesday night she's "disgusted" by the Plano city government and its finding that not enough signatures are valid to move forward.
"We hired a professional validation company to compare the signatures to the voter rolls and then give the numbers. I am shocked," Saifi said in a written statement to Bisnow.
The school owner also alleges the city charter does not grant the city secretary the authority to validate or proffer opinions on the validation of signatures submitted as part of the initiative petition. Bisnow has not been able to independently verify or dispute the validity of this claim as of press time.
"It appears that the city has once again forced citizens to go to court in order to enforce the city charter and the democratic process," Saifi said.
The city says the plan for the hike and bike trail near Hedgcoxe Road goes back decades and is no surprise to Saifi. The city says the trail has been in its planning documents since 1986 and has been in the school owner's planning documents since she took over the site in the late 1990s.
"We did find Ms. Saifi filed for expansion of her daycare back in 1999, which was later withdrawn. Her preliminary plan, in that case, showed the hike and bike trail going through the property," Mims said during the special council meeting Tuesday.
The value of the property that would be used for the bike easement remains one of the big areas of dispute between the parties today.
"In the Montessori School case, the owner wants $2,225,521 for an easement and alleged damages," the city said in a statement. "The easement was valued at $28,588 by the special commissioners appointed by the court. Since 2010, the City has only filed six condemnation cases with a court and four of those cases were successfully settled in a timely manner. We respect our businesses and citizens and we are committed to do everything we can to reach a fair agreement with property owners."
The city defended its financial offering in a statement released after the hearing Tuesday in which Mims refers to the city's fiduciary responsibility to seek out solutions that are financially prudent for taxpayers and to find the most affordable option for the bike trail.
The city claims the owner is seeking 100 times the easement's fair market value and alleges none of the requested compensations are supported by land value experts.
Mims said the city made several offers to settle the issue and even agreed to drop its eminent domain claim and pay for the school owner's attorney's fees but said the discussion fell apart when discussing settlement dollar amounts between the parties.
Saifi has appealed a Collin County court's ruling in 2017 about what the easement should be valued at. That appeal is expected to be heard this summer.
However the court case pans out, LaRosiliere expressed disappointment in how the dispute has played out publicly.
"It is a shame and unfortunate we have come to this point, but I know for myself, and for anybody who is listening, I know my conscience is clear on this," the mayor said. "We have done what we can to work with Ms. Saifi to get to a point where we can move on in a fair and equitable manner."