City begins condemnation for Chestnut Street Vermillion citizens may refer Monday's decision to a public vote by David Lias An issue that the Vermillion City Council has wrestled with for over two years may finally be settled � not by the aldermen, but by citizens.
All members of the council except for Barbara Yelverton voted Monday to condemn three tracts of privately owned property to allow the city to begin proposed improvements to Chestnut Street.
The council voted to condemn the property after hearing a report from City Attorney Martin Weeks, who had been asked if the street project is subject to referendum.
According to Weeks, the project is at an adminstrative stage, meaning it can't be brought to a public vote.
Court rulings, however, are supportive of the referendum process to question the condemnation of private property for a public works project.
Week's research shows that some of the more recent action regarding Chestnut Street began with a series of resolutions by the city council in February 1999. A resolution which approved a State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) plan was passed by the council Jan. 17, 2000.
"This resolution carries into effect the state approved plans for Chestnut Street and provides for the funding of construction," Weeks said. "So it has all the elements necessary to be a final resolution, and in my opinion it certainly was."
The council passed yet another resolution regarding Chestnut Street Nov. 20, 2000 that called for street lights to be included as part of the project and that the lights be listed as an alternative when the project is bid.
Not long after this resolution was approved, petitions were circulated in the city calling for a referral of the Chestnut Street project. Shortly after they were filed Dec. 4, 2000, Weeks rendered an opinion that the resolution involving the street lights was adminstrative in nature and not referable.
Several times Monday night, Weeks had to explain to inquiring aldermen that the Jan. 17, 2000 resolution that set the funding for the street project into motion could have been referred, but wasn't. Action on the project after that date was administrative in nature, he said, and could not be brought to a public vote.
Mayor Roger Kozak said the council's action in November 2000 was on Chestnut's street lights.
"That's not accurate," said Lynette Melby, one of the three property owners who would be affected if the project proceeds. "The action that we did refer was approval of the final design for Chestnut Street. What we referred when was the council approved 5 to 4 to approve a final design, not street lights."
Kozak read from the minutes of the Dec. 4, 2000 meeting. In November 2000, the official record states, the council agreed to proceed with the Chestnut Street plans and include street lights as an alternate to the plan.
"I think the citizens have every right to vote on this," Alderman Jere Chapman said. "The law says, too, that we should err on the side of the citizens."
Chapman's motion to allow citizens to vote on the petition filed Dec. 4, 2000 failed. The estimated $1.3 million price tag for the project's original design, if approved, is to be funded by $600,000 of city sales 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 would be used in the original design to construct a retaining wall south of Chestnut Street between the railroad tracks.