Better communication requested concerning Chestnut Street project

Better communication requested concerning Chestnut Street project by David Lias Vermillion citizens, including city government officials, shouldn't blame property owners along Chestnut Street for the lack of progress on improving the farm-to-market road.

According to Neil and Lynette Melby, who own property along the street, there has been a long history of a lack of communication between affected homeowners and the city.

"The impression is out there that we have or are dragging our feet on this," Lynette Melby told the council at a special meeting Monday. "That is not true. We have tried since at least the mid-'90s to get this process started and done."

Other property owners were invited to Monday's meeting, but only the Melbys were in attendance. At least two property owners couldn't attend because of health problems.

The council agreed to call Monday's special meeting in part at the request of Councilman Jere Chapman, who recently has been concerned about the information he has heard from the property owners.

"This is the first time during this offer process that we were contacted about asking for information, so we really want to thank him," Lynette Melby said. "That's part of why I'm really grateful that you guys are willing to do a special meeting with us with everything on the record, because it's come to our attention, in talking with different council members, that there may be some misinformation out there about the history of this."

The Vermillion City Council agreed last December to seek bids for the street improvement project. It was estimated at that time the work may cost as much as $1.3 million.

The portion of street under scrutiny is approximately one-half mile in length, and provides a link between Dakota and University streets.

The estimated $1.3 million price tag for the project will be funded by $600,000 of city sales

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tax revenue, the state of South Dakota, and Vermillion's share of Federal Surface Transportation Program funds.

The lion's share of the cost � approximately $900,000 � will be used to construct a retaining wall south of Chestnut Street between the railroad tracks. The wall is required by the railroad before the city can fill in the slope by the tracks to widen the street to 28 feet.

The project's design also calls for cutting into the bluff on the street's north side. The maximum cut is 11 feet at the back of the proposed curb at a point approximately 200 feet east of Dakota Street.

Lynette Melby said it's important for the city council to know "how hard we've worked to get this process under way and have been virtually ignored at every turn.

"I don't blame you guys for not being aware. I don't think some certain city staff let anybody know that street's right of ways not only weren't accomplished, but we were never approached," she added.

She said in December 1997 she and her husband were told that they would be contacted many times by city officials because work was to begin soon on acquiring the necessary Chestnut Street right of way.

Approximately three years passed, however, with no further communication from the city.

In January of 2000, the Melbys purchased additional property south of their home, and donated a portion of it to the city so it could construct a bike path.

It wasn't until the Melbys had a conversation with local government officials at that time, she said, that the city finally understood that it didn't own the land needed to complete the Chestnut Street project.

"But still nothing happened," Lynette Melby said.

She said she attempted to clarify the issue at a meeting of the Vermillion Planning Commission. The commission, Lynette said, was working on zoning issues for the city's comprehensive plan, and was discussing Chestnut Street.

"At that meeting, when they were looking for public input, I said, 'In order to keep this from happening again, could you put something in the comprehensive plan that something be done to give landowners some time and the city time to get this project done?'"

By the fall of 2000, property owners along Chestnut Street still had received no communication from the city, Lynette Melby said. "And (Alderman) Barbara (Yelverton) asked that the Chestnut Street plan be reviewed by the city council because a lot of people had issues not only with the cost but with safety."

"We then requested to sit down with Bill and Jeff, in the fall of 2000. It was not a productive meeting in that no survey had been done so they couldn't even tell us how much land they needed. We did bring up some issues that were on our minds then, and to our knowledge, they have never been addressed. Other than getting a call from an appraiser who we never heard back from, we had no contact from the city.

"Until we got the first written offer, that was our first official contact from the city," Lynette Melby added. "It was our understanding that the city started the condemnation process without ever sitting down and talking with us."

The Melbys said they have received recent correspondence from the city, but each letter has been missing some documents.

"So I don't know if we still have received the first official offer," she said.

"You mentioned that it was your understanding that the city had started condemnation procedures," Mayor Roger Kozak said. "Where did you receive that information?"

She replied that it is her understanding that official 30 day notices recently sent out to the affected property owners by the city, "can be used as the beginning of a condemnation procedure. Maybe that's not where it's headed, but it is the first step."

Kozak said that so far the council has held no discussions about property condemnation along Chestnut Street.

"I do believe that if you are sharing that information with others, you are being unfair to your elected body," he said.

"I disagree," Neil Melby said, "because the only thing I've got to go with is the statutes, and what that shows. If you're not aware that it's not the first step, we are. If you were to, after the 30 day period had expired, started with the second step of condemnation, you'd be ready to, because you've already done the first step," Neil Melby said.

"That's a big word in there � if," Kozak said, as he firmly denied that the city has begun condemnation proceedings along Chestnut Street. The Melbys were just as adamant in their claim that the city, no matter what its intent, has taken that step.

"There's a big difference between that being potentially the first step, and the actual commencing of proceedings," Kozak said. "We have not done that, and I don't wish for you or for anyone else to suggest that the city council is condemning property at this time."

"When you say if we've taken a first step, that 'if' is interesting," Lynette Melby said, "because you have taken the first step. Now whether you choose to take step number two, that's up to you."

The Melbys added that their attorney has reviewed the documents the couple has received from the city, and is comfortable stating that they represent the first step in a condemnation hearing.

Kozak noted once again that the city has no formal litigation started against any property owners along Chestnut Street.

Alderman Kevin Annis said the action taken by the city council so far may be interpreted as a first step toward condemnation. "But it also covers the the first step toward purchasing the land from you, which is the way we're looking at it," he said. "If condemnation happens, it happens, if that's the only way we can get our road done. But I'd feel much better if we can work something out."

The Melbys raised several other concerns during their lengthy meeting with the city council, including property appraisal issues, and possible permanent effects the road improvement project may have on their property, including additional erosion, lighting, possible damage to sewer lines and safety issues in the area.

After hearing the Melbys' input on this wide variety of issues, the council agreed to discuss them at a future meeting.

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