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City, RLD debate ownership of land PDF Print E-mail
Written by Kyle Arnoldy   

It appeared at the Tuesday, April 1 City Council meeting as though progress had finally been made with regard to proposed development plans for land east and south of the Cobblestone Inn and Suites in Holyoke.

Council members unanimously voted to move forward with a proposal to handle the drainage for the southwest portion of town, which should have made it possible for Robin Lake Development to begin developing commercial and residential lots.

But for every step forward, there seems to be two steps back as the city and RLD failed to see eye to eye on the most fundamental aspects of the project, including ownership rights to the O’Neal pit.

To begin Tuesday’s meeting, councilmembers engaged in a 22-minute executive session for matters subject to negotiations.

In the past, T.C. Engineering Inc. out of North Platte, Neb., was hired to evaluate the capacity of the O’Neal pit. While the pit is on property owned by Rupert O’Neal, the city has been using it for drainage purposes since the mid-1980s.

The engineering firm determined that the pit could only handle 50 percent of a 100-year event. Through a request by RLD, who was also working to solve its own drainage issues for the proposed area of development, the city had the engineering firm work up the costs related to four options for handling the drainage.

After Brent Burklund from T.C. Engineering Inc. provided broad details for how water will drain into a separate lake for the developed area and Tom Bennett voiced his support for moving forward with development Tuesday night, a decision was announced by the city for its drainage plans.

The city opted to clean the pond, utilize existing pumping and extend the discharge point. Within the evaluation of the drainage situation provided to the city by T.C. Engineering Inc., each plan detailed the amount of land necessary to complete the project and the cost to acquire the land. Costs were based on O’Neal’s statement at a previous city council meeting that the land was valued at $2 per square foot.

The option chosen by council members specifically set the property acquisition at $140,000. In total, the project was estimated to cost $231,595.

Following the conclusion of Tuesday’s meeting, attorney Russell Sprague, representing RLD, requested a work session to address contract terms.

When pressed about the price tag of the land, Mayor Orville Tonsing surprised RLD with his stance that he wasn’t positive that after so many years of use, the city needed to pay anything to continue to use the pit.

Tonsing cited the lack of a written agreement from the ’80s but noted that a verbal agreement had taken place for the city to use the pit. He stated that the agreement was mutually beneficial because the city would be able to use the pit dug by Dennis O’Neal, and an area that was consistently full of water would be able to drain, making farming of the area possible.

Sprague argued that all of the plans that have been discussed included the purchase of some land, so the idea of having to acquire land should not have been a surprise to council members Tuesday. Council members rejected that notion, and City Superintendent Mark Brown stated that he thought the fees were more of a reference point for cost analysis.

“You think you own my land because you have been running water on there for 28 years rent-free?” O’Neal asked.

Clearly surprised and agitated by Tonsing’s statement, O’Neal detailed a list of perceived slights he believes he and his family have suffered because of the city’s negligence.

At the time of the agreement between Dennis O’Neal—Rupert’s father—and the city in 1986, O’Neal stated, his father agreed to dig the pit for the city’s use, and the city council at the time agreed to help with the infrastructure and utilities on a street that was supposed to run behind the lot, creating 15 residential lots.

Once Dennis dug the pit and the city used it for drainage, O’Neal said, his father was told there was no contract on record obligating the city to help him.

“At this point, to tell me that the City of Holyoke owns the land that I have been paying tax on for 30 years—that my family paid for to buy and own and has let you run your water there for 28 years—you shouldn’t be very proud of what you’re trying to accomplish tonight,” O’Neal said.

“If you think this is going to work out smoothly and easily and that somehow you are just going to own that and there won’t be a problem, we’ll see if you want to pay 28 years of back rent. We’ll find a variety of issues that fall under the terms of arbitrary and capricious.”

O’Neal stated that he looks forward to talking to those who were involved in the arrangement in the ’80s, including the city attorney who he feels failed to get a contract drawn. He also urged the council to look into how much revenue the city lost, as 15 homes would have been paying taxes for 25 years.

“The city has the opportunity to move economic development forward in this town, and it should seize that opportunity,” O’Neal said.

With progress once again stalled, O’Neal stated that these issues should be much more simple to solve. While he prefers to work it out with the city and continue to extend an olive branch, O’Neal noted that RLD will explore litigious routes if necessary.

As discussions became more heated, council member Brian Akey called for an end of the meeting. He stated that finger-pointing was not going to get the ball rolling any quicker and that the city’s stance on acquiring land would be solidified within a week.

Wednesday morning, O’Neal stated that he was disappointed that no council member participated in the discussions or had any questions for Burklund, who had attended the meeting to offer any insight that he could.

However, despite the city not taking a definitive stance on acquiring land, O’Neal said he felt good about the option selected and the way it was approved because it included land acquisition costs.


Option amended at Thursday special meeting

A special meeting was announced Wednesday, April 2 for Thursday, April 3.

During Thursday’s meeting, council members unanimously voted to amend the option chosen to handle drainage. Specifically, the cost of the project was reduced to $78,595 with no mention of acquiring land in the amended wording.

Throughout negotiations and discussions, both sides have stated on multiple occasions that no contract between the city and Dennis O’Neal existed. It was announced Thursday night that the contract had been located.

“At the meeting on Tuesday, there was some confusion whether or not there was a written agreement between the City and Dennis and Carolyn O’Neal,” Tonsing said Thursday night. “Upon further review of the City’s records, there is a written agreement signed in 1986.

“Since then, the operation and maintenance of the drainage pond has benefited all parties concerned, and we look forward to working in the future to maintain that level of cooperation which has benefited the community. The City is disappointed there have been some hard feelings recently, but we will do our part to ensure there is a proper working arrangement to honor the wishes of Dennis and Carolyn O’Neal for joint operation of the project.”

The contract from 1986 states that Dennis and Carolyn O’Neal give an easement to the City of Holyoke. The O’Neals were tasked with constructing and maintaining a drainage pond for the joint benefit of the city and the O’Neals. It was agreed that Dennis and Carolyn O’Neal provide liability insurance for the pond and provide the city with a current certificate of insurance regarding the pond and operation in the amount of $500,000.

RLD is slated to return to the next council meeting Tuesday, April 15 to continue working to a solution.

Holyoke Enterprise April 10, 2014