April 17, 2014

Elyria
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EHS lays out plans

Homeowners voice concerns over bid to purchase properties

ELYRIA — Less than half of about 40 property owners whose homes will be razed or land purchased to make way for a new Elyria High School showed up at a Tuesday meeting where school officials laid out their plans for the coming months.
School officials made their point clear: They want to avoid having to go to court to secure the properties, and instead want to negotiate with the owners of the 50-some parcels that will become a footprint for the new high school in the coming years.
“We keep talking, and hopefully we talk until we reach a situation where we all agree,” said John Keyse-Walker, an attorney handling the property negotiations for the school district. “Nothing is set in stone.”
Keyse-Walker hit on a litany of issues raised by property owners who attended the hour-long meeting at Elyria’s Wesleyan Village, including spelling out a timetable for the coming months and laying out the owners’ options. 
Responses from property owners ran the gamut.
Some included longtime homeowners who shuddered at the notion of losing homes in which they’ve lived for decades, while others included landlords who seemed surrendered to the inevitable.
The meeting was contentious from the get-go when a homeowner lambasted the school board for the new school plans, saying voters wouldn’t have approved the May 8 tax issue if they knew homes would be snatched up.
Elyria Schools Superintendent Paul Rigda quickly shut down the debate.
“There’s no point in rehashing water under the bridge,” Rigda said. “If you came here for information, stay. If you came to argue, please leave.”
And with that, school officials and Keyse-Walker delivered a succinct agenda for the months ahead.
There are about 45 parcels that sit within the rectangle where the new high school will expand, a block hemmed in by Middle and West avenues and Sixth and Seventh streets. In addition, school officials say they’ll purchase eight other properties, most of which sit on the north side of Sixth Street, immediately west of West Avenue.
Already, the district has purchased five of the 53 total properties they want to use for the new school.
County auditor records show that 40 or so property owners hold the land in question. Some of the parcels are owned by the same owner, such as a series of apartments at 614, 610 and 606 West Ave., all owned by Westlake-based Simonson Investments.
At its last meeting, the school board agreed to apply for a
$5 million loan to jumpstart the property purchases, since it has to wait a few months for the actual bond money to come in, Rigda said.
That’s $2 million more than initial estimates for land purchase, which earmarked land costs at $3 million.
Keyse-Walker said homeowners in the affected area will receive letters in the coming days that will include an offer for their land. The letter will outline the reasons the district arrived at the figure.
Elyria Schools will give property owners a 10-day period to mull the proposal and decide whether to accept or reject it.
If the property owner rejects it, Keyse-Walker said the district will hire an independent appraiser to appraise the property, a process that could take about three weeks for all the homes involved.
The property owners also were encouraged to hire their own appraisers during the meeting Tuesday.
The owner and the school district then will sit down with both appraisals and try to reach an acceptable price.
Keyse-Walker said the district initially based its home valuations on the county auditor’s August 2006 assessments, but the amount the district offers each owner likely will be slightly higher.
Last year, school officials said they’d offer fair market value plus up to 10 percent for each property, but Keyse-Walker said Tuesday that the additional 10 percent is a “cushion” that allows the district wiggle room.
Some homes, for instance, may have new carpeting, windows and amenities that can only be seen from inside, Keyse-Walker said.
Rigda also said the 10-percent cushion was given in anticipation of any changes in the county auditor’s tax appraisals.
“When we first started talking about that 10 percent last summer, we were working off old numbers,” Rigda said. “We knew they’d go up for reappraisal.”
The school district can only pay for the closing costs associated with any purchase agreements — about 2 to 3 percent of the overall sales cost — so moving costs and other peripheral expenses won’t be covered, Keyse-Walker said. 
That snippet angered some residents, who said it wasn’t their choice to lose their homes.
“All we can do is negotiate on the fair market value,” Keyse-Walker said.
School officials said they expect to demolish homes as they’re purchased so that work could begin within the next month.
At the latest, the district is hoping to have purchase agreements for all the properties in place by August, Keyse-Walker said.
Anything later than that, and the district will being exploring its eminent domain options, Keyse-Walker said. 
If the district uses eminent domain and the property owner takes the issue to court — likely Lorain County Probate Court — a judge would determine the property’s value, Keyse-Walker said.
Contact Shawn Foucher at 329-7197 or sfoucher@chroniclet.com.