Winnebago Park District heads to court

Eminent domain proceeding designed to obtain a ‘fair and reasonable’ price for Roy Gayle baseball park from SCI

Supporters of Rockford Pony Baseball argue that if ever there were an eminent domain procedure critics of the controversial power could support, this is the case. At issue is not whether there is a willing buyer or seller, but how much money, and the amount of land the disputing parties are willing to accept to preserve a 43-year, Rockford-area youth baseball tradition.

However, property rights proponent Dr. Thomas Fleming, president of the Rockford Institute and editor of the conservative magazine Chronicles, isn’t buying supporters’ arguments for using the courts to force a settlement. Fleming countered that no matter how “valuable and virtuous” the project, eminent domain should only be used for “vital public interests,” such as national defense and bringing electricity to rural areas, not recreational purposes.

Service Corporation International (SCI) Illinois Services Inc., is the owner of the approximately 55 acres at the intersection of Meridian Road and Bypass U.S. Highway 20.

Robyn Sadowsky, spokesman for SCI, said July 14 they offered July 11 to sell about 32 acres of the baseball complex for $694,909 to the Winnebago Park District.

However, Ken Held, Rockford Pony Baseball representative, said an alliance consisting of Rockford Pony Baseball, Winnebago Park District and Rockford Park District representatives rejected that offer.

The group said at a well-organized July 14 press conference, that to spend an Illinois Department of Natural Resources matching grant, all 55 acres must be acquired, which they said is needed for future expansion. The value of the grant is dependent on the number of acres purchased and amount paid per acre, but has an upper limit of $600,000, according to Tim Dimke, chief operating officer of the Rockford Park District.

“If the state has to go back and re-evaluate, we might not even get the money,” Dimke said. “You get points for certain features; if you take out features, you might not get the money you requested. There was more money requested than granted in this grant cycle. So by reducing acreage and features, we risk losing the money.”

The difference in price and numbers of acres is the subject of an eminent domain court case filed July 14 by the Winnebago Park District against Willwood Corp., which merged into SCI in 1999.

The Roy Gayle Baseball Complex was leased for $1 per year by Rockford Pony Baseball from 1962 until 1999, when SCI purchased Willwood Corporation. The corporation operated the Willwood Cemetery, and owned the land on which the baseball complex exists. State records show Samuel Gayle was the last president of Willwood Corporation.

Seven baseball diamonds on about 29 acres at 973 S. Meridian Rd., annually serve about 1,200 youths between ages 5 to 16. Approximately 80 teams play at the facility.

According to business information analyst Hoover’s Inc., Houston-based SCI owns more than 1,200 funeral homes and 400 cemeteries in eight countries, primarily in the U.S. and Canada. In 2004, SCI generated nearly $1.9 billion in sales, and employed 20,598 workers in 2004.

Sadowsky said: “In the original agreement, we wanted to sell the entire 55 acres for $1.2 million” or $21,818 per acre. However, the baseball group said that price was not commensurate with upper-limit appraisals that place the value of the land at $10,024 per acre.

Mike Broski, spokesman for Rockford Pony Baseball, said no tax dollars will be used for the legal battle. Mark Murray, president of Winnebago Park District, added no local tax dollars will be used to purchase the property.

Regardless, Fleming doesn’t agree with the group’s legal action to pressure SCI into further negotiations or a forced settlement. He would like legislators, judges and citizens to stop the expanding use of eminent domain powers by government agencies by narrowing the definition of vital public interest.

“As valuable and virtuous as this may be, this is not a vital public interest. …Is recreation now a vital public interest?” Fleming asked.

He argued that when eminent domain laws were enacted sometime after the Civil War, their intent was for vital public projects such as national defense and bringing electricity to rural areas by erecting utility poles and building hydroelectric dams.

Since that time, Fleming said legislators and judges have expanded the definition of what is a “vital public interest,” which culminated earlier this month in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the seizure of private property for economic development and increasing tax bases. In effect, the Supreme Court’s ruling means private property may forcefully be taken by a government agency and transferred to another private entity under the guise of economic development.

Fleming said no matter who the property owner is: “If only ‘good’ people have property rights, then no one has property rights. …Wherever such use of eminent domain exists, it should be resisted and denounced.”

The baseball group said they regret having to file the lawsuit. However, to prevent possible destruction or demolition of existing facilities on the land by SCI, the group said they were forced to pursue legal action to protect their interests, after the current lease expires in August.

Sadowsky countered they are good corporate stewards, but they, too, would protect their interests.

Both parties in the dispute expressed a willingness to continue negotiations up to the time of a judge’s ruling in the case, which could be months away. The baseball group hopes the process will be expedited.

Broski said the group seeks only a “fair and reasonable price” for the land.

Fleming argued SCI shouldn’t have an eminent domain hammer over their head during negotiations.

Dimke asserts that the configuration of the acreage offered by SCI would require tearing down and moving several baseball diamonds, which would incur additional costs. This would change the character of the park and waste the money the Pony league volunteers have raised to build the diamonds. He said this is compounded by the growth in population in the Village of Winnebago and on the far west side of Rockford, which the Park District must plan for and serve in the future.

Dimke concluded: “Basically, they are selling 55 acres. If they needed it, would it be for sale?” Dimke asked. “We have had five appraisals, and all those were submitted to the State of Illinois. The state certified the highest appraisal and said, ‘We’ll give you 50 percent of that.’ We [the Park Districts] will come up with the other 50 percent. The state wants everybody to win, too, and so do we.”

Frank Schier, editor and publisher, contributed to this article.

From the July 20-26, 2005, issue

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