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Jefferson County initiates eminent domain proceedings for safety buffer at airport

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The Jefferson County Board of Legislators unanimously approved a resolution Tuesday that will begin eminent domain proceedings on land adjacent to the Watertown International Airport.

Eminent domain allows the government to take private property for public use provided that it pays just compensation to the owners of the property.

The county is planning to expand the runway at the airport by 1,000 feet and is attempting to gain control of parcels that lie to the east and west of the runway so that it can provide the average 2,500 feet of safety clearance required by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The western parcel is owned by William E. and Colleen J. Lawler and the eastern parcel is owned by Roscoe A. Eisenhauer, according to County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III.

Informal negotiations have been ongoing with Mr. Eisenhauer for 18 months and with Mr. and Mrs. Lawler for eight months but no deal for either parcel has been reached, Mr. Hagemann said.

The resolution, which was not listed on the agenda, was introduced at the end of the meeting by a waiver of rules governing county meetings.

Legislators acknowledged the sensitivity of the issue but insisted that the measure was necessary given the demands that may soon be placed on it by American Eagle, a subsidiary of American Airlines that serves the airport.

Legislator Barry M. Ormsby, R-Belleville, chairman of the board’s airport ad-hoc committee, said that American Eagle, which is currently in the process of renewing its agreement with the U.S. Department of Transportation to provide Essential Air Service to Watertown, is planning to phase out the 44-passenger regional jets it currently uses in favor of 50-passenger jets sometime in April.

The larger jets require a longer runway.

Ultimately, the decision to exercise the power to take the land will lie with the landowners, he said.

“If a meaningful discussion is had, the eminent domain proceedings will cease,” Mr. Ormsby said.

The county is looking to acquire 47 acres from Mr. and Mrs. Lawler and 153 acres from Mr. Eisenhauer. The county would either purchase the land at a rate determined by an appraiser or secure an easement on the land if the right of eminent domain is not used.

The Eisenhauer property has been appraised at $848 an acre and the Lawler property has been appraised at $946 an acre, according to Mr. Hagemann.

Mr. Hagemann said a dispute has arisen over the value of the Eisenhauer property.

The county’s appraisal was done before a water line was installed along Route 12F in the town of Hounsfield where the property is located; Mr. Eisenhauer’s appraisal was completed after the line was installed, according to Mr. Hagemann.

At the rates outlined by Mr. Hagemann, the county could pay a total of upwards of $175,000 for the land.

Gaining control of the land, which is currently vacant except for trees and brush, would allow the county to trim overgrowth and prevent the construction of any houses or other structures in the path of landing airplanes.

“As a legislator for 13 years, this is the first time this decision has come upon me in regard to eminent domain,” Chairwoman Carolyn D. Fitzpatrick said before putting the resolution to a vote.

Now that the board has approved the measure, a public hearing about the use of eminent domain to acquire the property will be set for early October, Mr. Haggeman said.

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