Public Power, Private Gain: Iowa



Iowa has had very few condemnations and threats of condemnation for private development in the past five years. In fact, the only reported instances of private condemnations were in Dubuque for a major waterfront redevelopment plan. Dubuque has condemned or threatened at least eight owners since 1990 in order to acquire the land for private retail and office space. Other cities in Iowa have exercised more restraint and refrained from engaging in private condemnations. The Iowa legislature has chosen to protect farmers, but not home or business owners, from condemnations for private use and also to give farmers greater notice about proposals to condemn their property. A constitutional challenge to the lack of notice of hearings on proposals to condemn one business’s property recently lost in federal court.


Legislative Actions


In an attempt to prevent farms from being taken for private commercial development, the Iowa legislature in 1999 added a provision that says that public use does not include the authority to condemn agricultural land for private development.234 Unfortunately, the legislature did not provide the same protection for all Iowa citizens.


The legislature’s greater respect for the property rights of farmers than home or business owners became apparent again in legislation about notice of proposed condemnations. In 1999, the Iowa state legislature passed a law that strengthened the rights of all Iowa property owners to more information about government proposals to take their property.235 Apparently, the legislature regretted giving its citizens more information, because in 2000, it changed the law to apply only to owners of agricultural land.236 The provision requires an acquiring agency to mail written notice of the public hearing about a proposed development project to each owner of property that would be removed for the project. It also explicitly states that condemnation proceedings may not begin until the agency has made a “good faith effort” to mail and publish the notice.237 Before this law, Iowa cities could hold hearings and decide to condemn property without notifying the owner, who would find out about the condemnation only when it was actually filed. The government now must inform owners of agricultural properties, but no one else, of government hearings about project proposals that would involve taking their land so that the owners have an opportunity to object.



Private Use Condemnations



In May 2002, the Dubuque City Council voted unanimously to condemn a 1.5-acre tract of land owned by the Mississippi Valley Truck Center, Inc., to make way for $150 million in future waterfront redevelopments to operate in conjunction with the $188-million America’s River project, which is already in the works. The City wants to clear out much of the area’s industry so that the land can “meet its investment potential,” according to the Port of Dubuque Master Plan. The truck center, which has been used to store logs and semi-tractor trailers, abuts the National Mississippi River Conference and Education Center. Local officials worry that without clearing this industrial land, vehicles exiting the conference center might have to pass by the logging operation, which might not be pleasing enough to the eye. Such a ghastly vision might in turn hurt Dubuque’s effort to remake its image as a mecca for conventioneers. The City suggests that the truck center land might be used for conference center parking or an office building. The City also used the threat of eminent domain to acquire more than 25 acres of other land near the truck center. 238



Dubuque also condemned a riverfront building that formerly housed the Dubuque Star Brewery, which operated at the location for many years until it closed in 1998. The Crompton Corp. owned the building and wanted to develop it. Crompton was still trying to determine how best to use the building in a way that fit in with the nearby America’s River discovery center and aquarium project. However, the City decided to save Crompton the trouble and condemned the property for eventual private use, including a microbrewery/restaurant and other retail/commercial tenants.239 The brewery is the eighth property that the City has acquired by eminent domain or under the threat of eminent domain for the area’s tourist-oriented redevelopment since 1990.240



Dubuque also condemned property owned by the Plastic Center, also known as The Fischer Companies, for a 200-room hotel and indoor waterpark along the riverfront.241


*These numbers were compiled from news sources. Many cases go unreported, and news reports often do not specify the number of properties against which condemnations were filed or threatened.

234 See Iowa Code § 6A.21; 1999 Iowa Advance Legis. Serv. 171, § 6A.21.

235 See 1999 Iowa Advance Legis. Serv., § 6B.2A(1).

236 See Iowa Code § 6B.2A(1) (2001)

237 See Iowa Code § 6B.2A(1) (2002).

238 Erin Coyle, “City Condemns Industrial Land; Eminent Domain: Truck Center Inc. Lot Will Be Used to Meet Investment Potential for the Port Area,” Telegraph Herald (Dubuque, IA), May 26, 2002, at A1.

239 “Legal Battle Brewing Over Ownership of Brewery,” AP Wire, Apr. 23, 2001.

240 Erin Coyle, “City Makes Use of Eminent Domain Proceedings,” Telegraph Herald (Dubuque, IA), July 1, 2002 at A1; Erin Coyle, “‘Tool of Last Resort’ Spurs Development; Condemned: City Has Used Threat of Eminent Domain to Acquire Eight Properties Since 1990,” Telegraph Herald (Dubuque, IA), July 1, 2002, at A1.

241 Erin Coyle, “City Makes Use of Eminent Domain Proceedings,” Telegraph Herald (Dubuque, IA), July 1, 2002 at A1; Jeff Pieters, “Miles to Go Before Sleep at Hotel,” Telegraph-Herald (Dubuque, IA), June 21, 2000, at A1.