Editor’s Note: The following is the complete text of a letter sent to the Township Committee (and cc’d to The Post) by Delaware Township Municipal Utilities Authority (DTMUA) Chairman William W. Schroeher. In it, the DTMUA presents its perspective on its eminent domain decision, but agrees to postpone condemnation proceedings until the Township Committee, DTMUA and Hannans can meet on the site of the sewer treatment facility and the Hannan’s property to reconcile differences. The meeting is set for March 4, 2006 at 10:00am.
For background on this story, read The Post’s first report on this issue from Feb 11 and read the opinion of The Post’s Editorial Board, critical of the DTMUA, from Feb 13.
Delaware Township Municipal Utilities Authority
PO Box 103
Sergeantsville, NJ 08557
February 22, 2006
Delaware Township Committee
Sergeantsville, NJ 08557
Dear Members of the Committee,
As Chairman of the DTMUA, I would like to address the recent Condemnation of the Hannan property by our Board. The DTMUA appreciates and welcomes your effort to resolve this serious environmentally sensitive and critical issue. It is important that the factual background be set forth to show that the DTMUA has proceeded cautiously and in a fair manner to Mr. and Mrs. Hannan.
A. The DTMUA sewer treatment plant is located at the end of a long, narrow lane that must be negotiated by tractor trailers and other large pieces of equipment in order to safely and efficiently operate it. In the past the equipment operators, and sometimes DTMUA employees, trespassed on the Hannans’ property. The Hannans rightfully complained about this and, after a written apology from the DTMUA, in January 2004, the DTMUA Board began to develop a fair and workable solution. It requested its engineer, Dr. Andrew Higgins, analyze the problem and suggest some solutions, which he did. The engineer reject ed acquiring property on the opposite side of the plant, owned by Maresca, for a number of reasons. One of the more compelling reasons was that the DTMUA could not provide truck or dumpster access to the sand beds to clean them and to replace the sand given the current configuration of the plant. The sand bed function is a critical component in the operation of the plant. The beds can be reached through the Hannan property, but the Maresca property offers no access.
B. The most practical solution seemed to be to acquire a small parcel (about 1/8th of an acre) of property from the Hannans. This would allow a place for arriving and departing trucks and equipment to have room to maneuver. The area suggested by the engineer involved the same area where the Authority employees had previously gone on to the Hannans’ property. In addition, since the Hannans own 15 acres, the loss of 1/8 of an acre did not seem unreasonable.
C. The Authority’s lawyer met with Mr. Hannan and suggested the Authority wanted to purchase the land where the Authority’s trucks had been going on his property. He explained that it was almost impossible to avoid future trespasses without the acquisition. He offered fair compensation and also offered to pay $750 for the Hannans to get a lawyer to review the proposal. In addition, the Authority was willing to erect a privacy fence to shield the area, even though the Hannans’ house is located a considerable distance from the DTMUA property.
D. The Hannans rejected selling the property, but raised the possibility of leasing it to the Authority. Apparently, the Hannans were concerned that if they wanted to subdivide, the loss of 1/8th of an acre might create a problem for them. The Authority was unwilling to simply enter a lease because it was afraid this vital access to the property could be lost in the future if the Authority possessed it only by lease, especially if the Hannans wanted to subdivide.
E. Because the Authority and the Hannans could not get together on this issue, the Authority, in August 2004, hired an appraiser to evaluate the value of the .126 acre parcel it sought to acquire. The appraiser walked the property, did a careful appraisal and prepared a report that established the value of the property as $3,475, which amount was offered by the Authority to the Hannans on March 20, 2005. The Authority provided Mr. and Mrs. Hannan with a complete copy of the appraisal and indicated that if they had another price in mind, they should advise what that price was and provide any appraisals they had obtained.
F. On April 28, 2005 the Hannans advised the Authority’s attorney they had no interest in selling and further advised the Authority that they did not give permission to the Authority’s vehicles to park, turn or use their property.
G. This placed the Authority in a very difficult position. It could not voluntarily acquire from the Hannans the property that was vital to its operation and it was warned that its trucks and equipment were not permitted to trespass on the property. The delivery of chemicals to the plant and the removal of sludge are critical to the plant’s day to day operations. Moreover, for obvious health, safety, regulatory and convenience reasons the Authority cannot simply shut down or move its operations to another location. Thus, its only option was to move forward to acquire the property.
H. However, before it considered condemnation, the Board decided to make one more attempt to acquire the property. It decided to increase the offer to $5,000 for the .126 acre parcel. Accordingly, on June 6, 2005 it made this offer, which it agreed to keep open for 30 days. The Hannans never responded.
I. The Authority still held off proceeding with condemnation with the hope the Hannans would reconsider. Then, on December 22, 2005, it again discussed the issue at its meeting. It finally and reluctantly voted to proceed to condemnation in February, 2006.
J. If the Authority did not act to acquire the property it would be in a quandary considering that it is vital to the Authority’s functioning for trucks to come in and out of the property and it is likely that from time to time they would stray onto the Hannans’ property, thereby exposing the Authority, its employees and contractors to criminal prosecution by the Hannans’ for trespass. This is entirely unacceptable for a government operation. For these reasons the Authority members felt they were left with no choice but to proceed to condemnation to protect the Authority’s operation and to protect the employees and contractor from criminal trespass actions.
The DTMUA has agreed to postpone the condemnation proceedings to allow the Township Officials and the Hannan family to review the physical limitations the authority is presented with at the location of the sewer treatment plant. The DTMUA proposes Saturday, March 4, 2006, 10AM, to meet at the sewer facility. If there is no snow at the location at the time, everyone can view the properties on both sides of the driveway leading to the plant as well as the Hannan property in question. The engineer for the Authority will be available to point out the reasons why the property being sought is necessary to operate the plant in an environmentally safe manner and answer any questions about why we need it. The decision to proceed with the condemnation was not done in haste, as detailed above , and was commenced only after two unsuccessful attempts to negotiate the acquisition, including an offer at a 50% premium above the appraised value as a good will gesture. If the Hannans felt the offer was inadequate, we would have the property re-appraised (which we are currently doing) to ensure that the value offered is “just compensation.” Eminent domain is justified only when a property owner refuses to enter into negotiations for sale of a property needed for public use. We believe this to be the case in this instance.
Long time DTMUA authority members familiar with the plant understand why this property is needed and only reluctantly voted to take this action because there was no other viable alternative. This conclusion will be self-evident when the properties on both sides of the lane a nd the Hannan property are reviewed and the needs of the Authority to access the plant in a safe and environmentally sound manner are explained. The physical condition and location of the property provides the answer. It is necessary to see the property in order to understand the issues and the proper solution. I should point out that some of the trucks that use the turnaround area carry liquid chlorine and other chemicals, which would be an environmental disaster if the truck backing down the lane as some have suggested struck a tree or slid off the lane and spilled its load into the C-1 stream that runs along side the lane and Hannan property. Please remember that the lane stretches nearly 1,000 feet from the street to the plant, a l ong way to maneuver heavy equipment looking through the rear window.
Thank you for your concern and continued interest.
William W. Schroeher
CC/ Members of the DTMUA Board
Mr. & Mrs. Hannan
The Editorial Board of “The Post”