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Kansas land owners feel run over by state

Turnpike claims eminent domain in taking property

By Eric Weslander
Lawrence Journal-World

There's a noisy beast in Richard Wolfe's back yard, and it's getting bigger.

Wolfe is one of dozens of Douglas County residents losing land to the Kansas Turnpike, which is slated to expand by two lanes in coming years between Lecompton and Topeka. Of Wolfe's 80-acre property, the expansion is taking about 2 acres – a strip of land roughly 50 feet wide along the south side of the highway.

"They're taking more land from me, they're moving closer to my house, and it really is going to devalue my property quite a bit," said Wolfe, who owns a landscape and irrigation business. He calls the state's offer of $2,500 an acre "thievery."

Turnpike officials say they're offering what they think is fair.

"You never want to take somebody's property, and we didn't take any more property than we absolutely had to," said Tom Wurdeman, chief engineer for the Kansas Turnpike Authority.

But the court is coming down on the side of the state. And that's making landowners like Wolfe grumpy.

"They just ramrodded their way through this," Wolfe said.

The expansion, estimated in 2002 to cost more than $108 million, is needed to allow traffic to keep flowing smoothly in coming years, Wurdeman said. Major work on the project is scheduled to begin in the fall.

The project affected 59 tracts of land, 48 of them in Douglas County and the rest in Shawnee County, Wurdeman said. The KTA reached a settlement out of court with owners of all but 14 tracts, he said.

Most landowners along the route already have sold to the KTA, but not Wolfe. He and 13 others thought the government's offers for their land were too low, which led the KTA to file for eminent-domain proceedings last month in district court.

"We feel like we tried to negotiate these things and give the people what the value is and what the damages are," Wurdeman said. "If we disagree, we let a court determine that."

Douglas County District Judge Michael Malone granted the petition Feb. 26. That cleared the way for the properties to be condemned and for Wolfe and codefendants to be forced to sell at a price determined by court-appointed appraisers.

Wolfe said the $2,500-per-acre price offered by the KTA failed to account for lost money from his roadside billboard and the decline in value in the rest of the property, which he plans to sell for residential lots.

Notices that the land was up for grabs began arriving about six months ago, landowners said.

Douglas County resident John Lusk stands to lose about 15 percent of his 4-acre plot north of the highway. He said he was puzzled that the amount of land the KTA wanted grew between the first and second offer.

He wasn't satisfied with either offer because he said neither took into account the damage to his remaining property.

"They're going to look out for their own best interest and none of ours, I would think," he said.