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EMINENT DOMAIN THREAT: Hangs over Columbia airport expansion

Sidestepping straight talk, is City Hall offering family farmers crummy deal compared to big developers?

COLUMBIA, 1/24/12  (Beat Byte) --  As it is with farmers Frank and Ann Martin in Hallsville, so too is the threat of eminent domain darkening the doorstep of Judy Gibson's family farm northeast of the Columbia Regional Airport.  
 
As part of a plan to expand the moribund airport many observers -- especially readers of the Columbia Daily Tribune -- are calling a bad idea, one quarter of the Gibson family's 200-acre farm -- 50 acres -- could be lost, in a process she describes as so sketchy it has been almost secretive.  
 
A line in the 2012 Columbia city budget that appears to set aside less than $500,000 for airport land acquisition recently alarmed the Gibson family.   For starters, it would offer a fraction of the land's value -- and about half per acre what City Hall recently paid for park land from the Bob Pugh/Tom Atkins St. Charles Road Development partnership north of town:  $10,000 vs. $22,000
 
But like everything she has experienced with the expansion, Gibson says what the budget item means isn't clear.  When family members have attended City Hall meetings, they've come away with unanswered questions, little concrete information, and almost nothing "about the timing and specifics of what the city has planned for our old farm," in the family for 101 years, Gibson explained.     
 
"We have requested updates and notifications from them repeatedly, and have received nothing to date from anyone in the know," she told the Heart Beat.  "Zero, zip, nada."
 
The airport eminent domain playbook sounds strikingly similar to the secretive way former Columbia city manager Bill Watkins slipped not one, but two ordinances onto a City Council agenda that would have allowed City Hall to take land in downtown Columbia belonging to Jack and Julie Rader, where Bengals Grill is located.   Until this publication reported it, only one Council member had any idea the plan was moving forward. 
 
When the story of pending airport land condemnation first broke in October 2009, Gibson said her family was even less informed.  Despite years of planning from airport and city staff, she told the Tribune no one bothered to contact her and that she only found out about the details of the plan at a public meeting that August.

Every contact with City Hall since has been instigated by Gibson or other members of her family, she explained.  "We contact the city regularly for updates, but can get little or no information on our family farm's fate." 

To expand and improve what he calls "a very nice 1969 airport, with room for 50 passengers only," Columbia Mayor Bob McDavid, M.D. has launched a major push to raise taxes on hotels and motels in recent weeks, a move that itself has generated controversy and resistance.  
 
Any increase in the tax could jeopardize fragile growth after reduced guest occupancy during the recession, Columbia Hospitality Association member and Stony Brook Inn manager Mike Kelly told Columbia City Council members last week. 

The targeted farmland, meanwhile, represents about half the Gibson's farm income and a long family legacy, Judy Gibson explained.  "I was raised on that farm and walked the land as a little girl with my grandmother," she said.  "My grandma was a wonderful, loving woman who was born and lived all of her life there.  Those were sweet times for a little kid."
 
In a comment about Gibson's dilemma, one Trib reader wrote,  "Don't worry, Judy Gibson!  Once the economy collapses, idiocies such as a 20-year master plan for an un-needed airport will quickly fall to the side.  In 10 years time, the dandelions will own whatever concrete is left out there." 


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