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Jefferson County eminent domain hearing to reconvene

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Jefferson County will reconvene a public hearing about eminent domain proceedings at the Watertown International Airport tonight.

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

The hearing was adjourned two weeks ago after property owners raised several concerns about the county’s land acquisition at the airport on Route 12F near Dexter.

“We’re simply looking to entertain any further public comment and any remarks that are pertinent to the proceedings. Then we will go ahead and close the hearing,” said County Legislator Barry M. Ormsby, R-Belleville, chairman of the board’s Planning and Development and airport ad-hoc committees.

The county is planning to extend a runway at the airport by 1,000 feet to accommodate larger regional jets and needs to gain control of parcels at either end of the runway to provide 2,500 feet of safety clearance required by the Federal Aviation Administration.

To do this, the county is attempting to purchase 84.79 acres owned by Roscoe A. Eisenhauer, 2.83 acres owned by Robert M. Siver Sr. and John R. Siver, 25.33 acres owned by William E. Lawler and Colleen J. Lawler, 15.63 and 5.74 acres owned by Colleen J. Lawler and 7.65 acres owned by Hydro Development Group.

The Eisenhauer property has been appraised at $848 an acre and the Lawler property has been appraised at $946 an acre, Jefferson County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III said in August.

Eminent domain was pursued after other negotiations broke down, according to Mr. Hagemann.

Before the hearing adjourned, Mr. Eisenhauer, who is an attorney, asked several questions of Shawn R. Bray, airport engineering manager for Passero Associates, Rochester, and submitted letters and blueprints to be included in the record of the proceedings in case the matter went to court.

Mr. Eisenhauer contended the county’s demands on his property have increased without warning through the years.

“The first hearing raised a lot of unanswered questions and a lot of unverified facts. Hopefully the county will answer those questions and we can go from there,” Mr. Eisenhauer said.

Patrick L. Seely, an Albany-based attorney representing the Lawlers, also said the county’s demands have changed in size and asked whether an environmental survey that had been completed when the project was of a smaller scope was still valid.

Mr. Hagemann said those questions would be cleared up during the reconvened hearing.

He also acknowledged that the size of the project at the airport has grown.

“It has changed, but so have the long-term plans for the airport,” Mr. Hagemann said.

When the county acquired the airport from the city of Watertown in 2006, both runways were 5,000 feet long and additional space for a safety buffer already was needed but had not yet been addressed.

Then one runway was expanded by 1,000 feet in 2009, creating a need for an even larger buffer zone, Mr. Hagemann said.

“To add the final 1,000 feet, we have to gain control either by purchase or easement of a certain area at either end of the runway,” Mr. Hagemann said.

County officials said they have tried to keep Mr. Eisenhauer apprised of the changes in the project but he was unresponsive.

The county hopes to expand the runway to 7,000 feet to accommodate the larger regional jets being put into service by American Eagle, the American Airlines subsidiary that serves Watertown International Airport.

The county needs to secure the additional safety clearance before it can receive funding from the FAA for the runway expansion.

Using eminent domain to acquire the land is a last resort and a move that the county is taking very seriously, Mr. Hagemann said.

According to County Attorney David J. Paulsen, once the hearing is closed, the Planning and Development Committee will review the proceedings and come to a determination to be acted upon by the entire Board of Legislators.

The board will discuss the “need for the taking” and the “form of the taking,” Mr. Paulsen said.

If the board resolves to pursue eminent domain to acquire any property, the owners of the property will have an opportunity to appeal. If there is no appeal, the county will make a motion in front of a state Supreme Court judge to allow it to obtain the title to the property.

The county is hoping to bring the issue to a close by mid-spring, Mr. Paulsen said.

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