Machesney Park forces family to leave home of 55 years

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-113276467031129.jpg’, ‘Photo by Jeff Havens’, ‘Development target: The Harty family home of 55 years at 9732 Orlando St. in Machesney Park is the latest residence Village officials have pressured to sell under the threat of eminent domain proceedings.’);

Village threatens eminent domain on property targeted for retail development

Another case study in the controversial use of eminent domain power brews in the Village of Machesney Park.

Andrew Harty, 76, has owned his Machesney Park home at 9732 Orlando St. for 55 years. During that time, he and his wife, Janet, raised seven children in their home, and they do not want to move.

However, the family is being forced to vacate the property because Village officials have targeted their home, and others in the area, for development. Harty’s home stands in the way of the Village’s plan to turn the intersection of Illinois 173 and 251 into a shopping, dining and retail mecca.

Much of the area has already been developed by private businesses in the last five years, and Harty is one of the last holdouts. Neighbors on both sides of Harty have already bowed to Village pressure by selling.

Machesney Park’s actions against Harty come on the heels of a controversial ruling in June by the U.S. Supreme Court that approved government seizure of private property for economic development purposes. The decision broadened the definition of “public use” as described in the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which permits government agencies to seize private property for public uses by exercising its “eminent domain” powers.

Critics argued the decision undermines property owner rights to fight states, cities and villages from forcibly seizing property and selling it to wealthy and politically influential developers and construction interests under the guise of economic rejuvenation.

Even before the Supreme Court issued its land seizure ruling June 23, Machesney Park officials already subscribed to the broad definition of “public use,” and expanding authority. That philosophy was demonstrated in a 2003 incident in which Village officials pressured Harty’s former neighbor, Dewey Henninger, to sell his business on Melbourne Avenue.

Henninger’s former property is approximately 300 yards from Harty’s home.

Asked whether Harty wanted to sell his land, he replied: “No, I don’t want to sell. I’ve been there for 55 years.”

Building a neighborhood

Harty said he moved into the house in the late 1950s from his home in rural South Dakota, after taking over mortgage payments from his brother. Harty then worked as a steel fabricator and welder before retiring.

He now lives on Social Security benefits, which he said will make it difficult for him to find a similar residence for the $70,000 the Village is offering for his house. Harty said he thought he should be able to recover an estimated $60,000 in improvements he had invested in the property during the last 30 years.

He added he didn’t plan on being forced to move, which may have factored into whether he would have made the improvements. Harty noted with irony that approximately 40 years ago, he and other residents were forced to construct Orlando Street, after the government—Winnebago County—refused to assist building the road.

Now, the government is helping private developers acquire his home under threats of eminent domain proceedings. Harty also asked whether it was fair that he was being forced to negotiate a price for his land with the Village, rather than the private developers who want his land.

Machesney Park President Linda Vaughn did not return messages for comment concerning the action against Harty. However, during a June interview Vaughn said she supported the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“I think the Supreme Court put a lot of thought into it, and made the right decision, based on what I know,” Vaughn said.

Similar case

Like the action against Harty, Machesney Park officials threatened in March 2003 to wield the very power the Supreme Court validated last June.

Under the threat of an eminent domain action, Henninger reluctantly sold his land for his excavating business in 2003.

Machesney Park Village Trustees voted 6-0 March 31, 2003, to postpone action that would have authorized the village to seize Henninger’s property to make way for retail development. The postponement was approved while Henninger and the Village hammered out an agreement.

Henninger’s 0.15 acres was the last property developer Sunil Puri of First Rockford Group needed to reconfigure the area into a strip mall.

The board voted to delay the decision to condemn the property while Henninger’s attorney, Bernard Healy, discussed a settlement with Puri. After Henninger settled with Puri that month, Henninger later relocated his business to a property less than one mile from the previous site.

Asked whether Henninger settled under an inordinate amount of pressure, Vaughn responded: “I’ve seen Dewey since then. And Dewey doesn’t hold a grudge against the Village in any way.”

As to Henninger and other Machesney Park landowners being forced to settle under similar circumstances, Vaughn said: “They were all treated with respect. And they all received a fair price, and then some.”

Specifically, Vaughn asserted: “We always offer the appraisal value plus 20 percent. …We always try to respect the right of the individual.”

In reaction to the Supreme Court’s ruling, Henninger’s wife, Barbara, asked: “Why is it right for the government to take away one business and replace it with another? It just doesn’t seem right.”

Puri responds

Even Puri, a prominent regional developer and political heavyweight, agreed with Barbara Henninger’s assessment.

Puri reacted to the Supreme Court decision and the use of eminent domain by commenting: “I believe certainly it should be used for public transportation, and projects for the public good. But purely for a developer to take over a tract of land? I don’t even know how a developer can morally justify that.”

In addition to property near the Illinois 251 and 173 intersection, Puri’s company bought land several miles to the east of Henninger and Harty’s property in anticipation of new state and county road construction.

Specifically, First Rockford bought several properties in Machesney Park along the county’s northward extension of Perryville Road. They also bought property near the proposed I-90 interchange at Illinois 173.

Henninger and Harty’s property existed within a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District Machesney Park officials created several years ago. The district was created because officials viewed the area as blighted, and in need of development, rather than an area that would have been a logical target for developers like Puri.

Asked whether Machesney Park officials ever succumbed to pressure exerted by any developer or construction interest, Vaughn said: “We’ve never created a TIF district for a developer. When a developer approaches a private landowner, the Village stays out of it.”

From the Nov. 23-29, 2005, issue

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