Judge grants eminent domain for Rock Ridge

VIRGINIA — Virginia Public Schools was granted an eminent domain request to force a local charter school from a building the district purchased for a future location of the Rock Ridge Public Schools.

Rock Ridge a consolidation of Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert School Districts.

In his decision, Sixth Judicial District Judge Robert C. Friday first admonished both Virginia and the East Range Academy of Technology and Science (ERATS) for their handling of the lease issue that encompassed a separate lawsuit, failed buyout negotiations and ultimately an eminent domain claim.

The judge wrote in a conclusion issued Friday that Virginia has “express authority” to acquire the ERATS lease at the former Spectrum Health building near Midway, “regardless of whether the property is denominated public or private.”

Friday ordered the lease terminated and said ERATS must vacate the property by Aug. 31, 2020, and any damages directed toward the charter school will be determined by a condemnation commission appointed by the court.

He went on to express his “dissatisfaction” with the course of events leading to his ruling, saying the schools ultimately serve the same student population.

“The failure of the parties to reach accord, only harmed those that were not a party to this dispute, namely the children,” Friday wrote. “The emotional arguments raised by [ERATS] have merit, even if it is not legal merit, and this conflict will result in a rift in our community. As the parties move forward, the Court sincerely hopes the swords are sheathed, and that the schools will work collaboratively for the benefit of those we serve.”

Virginia purchased the property from Spectrum Health Services for $2.1 million in August 2019. ERATS has leased space in the Spectrum building since 2014 and their current lease could be extended through 2028.

Trevor Helmers represented Virginia and argued that the district “tried to work with ERATS time and again to avoid condemnation,” referring to the multiple lease buyout offers over the preceding months.

He said in oral arguments on June 22 that the space will be used for public use and that it is reasonable and necessary for the condemnation. He went on to further argue that Virginia is on the hierarchy of condemners and ERATS, as a charter school who is not allowed to own property, is not.

ERATS, represented by Jeff Storms and Erik Honkanen, argued that Virginia didn’t have the authority to claim eminent domain, and said a quick-take of the property would be harmful to the charter school.

Quick-take is a way that allows the government, in this case Virginia, to take possession of the property immediately and can be part of the land acquisition process of eminent domain.

Friday concluded that Virginia complied with the statutory requirements for such an action.

Helmers, the Virginia attorney, wrote in an email that they are satisfied with the outcome and the ruling “paves the way for the District to proceed with construction, as planned, and ensures that students will be educated in the District’s new high school facility according to project timelines, without delay or extra cost to taxpayers.”

Rock Ridge schools are slated to open in 2023 and complications with the Spectrum building and lease threatened to delay that timeline. Rock Ridge officials are planning a groundbreaking ceremony at the new school site on Aug. 5.

Helmers added that ERATS will be “fairly compensated” and that the district plans to work with the charter school “to ensure a smooth transition to a new location.”

Honkanen wrote in an email that ERATS was disappointed in the decision and are reviewing their legal options, which could include an appeal. He added they are “left scratching our heads” how to respond to the original eminent domain resolution.

“This is truly a sad occasion for ERATS students,” he wrote.

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