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City Council discusses eminent domain process

By Staff | Jun 13, 2017

A petition to City Council about best practices regarding its eminent domain process following a year-long fight between the city and the Bunch family would not have been presented if Councilmember John Carioscia got the support of more of his colleagues Monday night.

“This sets a very bad precedence,” Carioscia said of his desire to not allow the presentation. “It could start DCD issues and should work its way up the line to the city manager before coming to council.”

Carioscia’s motion was shot down by a 5-3 vote, but his fear that it would turn into a venting process with the family proved accurate.

“That discussion never should have happened,” said Councilmember Jessica Cosden afterward. “It was less about best practices and more about the Bunches’ case. If I had known it would turn out that way I would not have voted to allow the presentation.”

Council wanted about a 10-minute presentation, but it turned into a two-hour ordeal of accusations and defense of the city’s handling of the process.

The Bunch family fought the city’s eminent domain for their 5-acre property near Pine Island Road west of Chiquita Boulevard for more than a year. The city offered to purchase the property, but the Bunches rejected what they considered to be a low-ball appraisal. The property was not even listed for sale when the city came calling with the purpose of erecting two 5-million-gallon storage tanks on the parcel to serve the city’s next Utilities Extension Project in north Cape.

At a recent council meeting, the city dropped its eminent domain claim and decided to pursue an adjoining parcel owned by a bank.

Family member Wendy Blake did most of the talking for Ginny and Jeff Bunch during the presentation. Their intention was to convince the city to review its process so no other family would have to go through the same experience.

The family requested the city review best practices for acquiring property through purchases, trades, donations, vacations or eminent domain. They said the city needed to be more consistent with the process, more well documented, to comply with state law, and be honest with a policy in place.

“The experience would have been improved with better communication,” Blake said.

“I have followed this from the beginning,” said Carioscia. “The one thing I have never seen is their own appraisal by the Bunch family.”

At one point Councilmember Richard Leon called a point of order, saying, “We’re talking too much about your property and not best practices. Let’s get back on point.”

In defense, City Manager John Szerlag responded by calling several staff members to the podium saying staff did everything laid out in their eminent domain process as well as how the site was selected.

Mayor Marni Sawicki criticized Szerlag for parading staff to the microphone refuting the Bunch accusations.

“You are responsible, not this council, for the road we have traveled to get here,” said Sawicki.

Cosden proposed the city audit the real estate division not only financially but also on the way the city conducts the eminent domain process.

Szerlag concluded by agreeing to look at the current practices and find where improvements can be made and report back to council.

Council had scheduled a special meeting at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday in council chambers to discuss the UEP assessments for the next phase of the project.