Posted Online: Aug. 12, 2014, 7:06 pm

RI will appeal Big Island levee court loss

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By Eric Timmons, etimmons@qconline.com

ROCK ISLAND -- The city of Rock Island will appeal the decision by the courts against its plan to condemn a section of levee on Big Island to build a road to a proposed retail development.

Circuit Court Judge Lori Lefstein ruled on Monday in favor of the Big Island River Conservancy District, the village of Milan, Black Hawk Township, Black Hawk Township Road District and residents of Big Island in prohibiting a condemnation of the levee.

Rock Island Mayor Dennis Pauley said Tuesday the city would appeal the decision to the 3rd District Court of Appeals.

The residents and the four public bodies who intervened in the case had concerns that the city's project could undermine the integrity of the levee that protects Big Island from flooding.

The appeal will add to the already large cost of the legal dispute and the broader project, which has surpassed $1.2 million when combined with the investment the city made to buy land for the development.

Attorneys have so far billed taxpayers at least $240,000 to represent the opposing sides in the case. Lane & Waterman, of Davenport, has billed the city around $141,000, according to city records.

Mayor Pauley said he believed the city had received good legal advice on the case and the city plans to keep the same legal team in place for its appeal.

Milan and the conservancy district have racked up over $100,000 in legal bills, said village administrator Steve Seiver. Both bodies plan to petition the courts to have the city pay those bills, he added.

Mr. Seiver said he hoped the city would not appeal the case and said he was still willing to sit down and talk to city officials about the project, which has been dubbed "Jumer's Crossing."

"I think that the judge correctly analyzed the issues at hand and handed down a very well thought out opinion," Mr. Seiver said.

The city brought about 90-acres close to the intersection of Interstate 280 and Illinois 92 from RiverStone Group, Inc., in 2013 for $1 million.

It's understood that attorneys spoke to Rock Island City Council about the court ruling in a closed-door meeting Monday night and presented their case in favor of an appeal by the city.

Although the council could not vote as the meeting was closed to the public, there was a consensus that the city should continue its fight in the courts.

The proposed Jumer's Crossing development that's threatened by Monday's court ruling is viewed as a key economic development goal for the city and one that would bolster the future of the nearby Jumer's Casino.

Ald. Chuck Austin, 7th Ward, said he had some "doubts and concerns" but was in favor of the appeal after listening to the attorneys and considering all of the legwork the city has already undertaken.

Ald. Joy Murphy, 6th Ward, said the city "should exhaust all avenues" to get the project off the ground as the development would benefit the entire region. Ald. Steve Tollenaer, 4th Ward, said he had no comment to make on the case.

In her ruling, Judge Lefstein cited federal law in rejecting the city's petition to condemn part of the levee so that it could construct a road over it.

As officials from Milan and others have argued all along, she found that federal law prohibiting altering the levee without approval from the federal government trumped any state laws allowing for property to be condemned.

The levee was built under the authority of the U.S. Corps of Engineers and that's why its protected by federal rules.

However, even without the issue of federal law, Judge Lefstein that the city's argument that it could take easements owned by the conservancy district was incorrect.

"This analytical approach of the city has it backwards," she wrote in her opinion.

The city cannot condemn the easements owned by the conservancy district because the state's Eminent Domain Act and Municipal Code "do not allow for such a taking," Judge Lefstein wrote.

Four Big Island residents had filed motions to intervene against the city's plan, in addition to Milan, the conservancy district and Blackhawk Township and Road District. They are James Webb, Timothy Miller, Daniel Miller and Robert Taylor.

Milan and the conservancy district are "sponsors" of the levee, which gives them say over any plans to modify it under federal law. The two bodies have insisted since the dispute began that the city has not furnished detailed plans that show the impact the development could have on flood protections. Rock Island officials have said they can't submit a more detailed plan until they get the go-ahead to build the road.