Salem-Keizer School District may use eminent domain to acquire six acres of this field east of McNary High School from St. Edward Catholic Church. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

A vacant field spotted with dandelions has become a sticking point between two growing Keizer institutions: McNary High School and St. Edward Catholic Church.

The Salem-Keizer School District has spent more than a year in negotiations seeking to buy six acres of church-owned land east of the high school before announcing this week that it may force the church to sell land it wants to keep.

For McNary, the land is essential to expand an overcrowded high school which is projected to have more than 2,300 students by 2025. The building was built for 1,700.

The empty land would be turned into athletic fields to replace fields that would be used for expanding the high school with additional classrooms and a new drop-off area to better separate pedestrians from vehicles.

It would also allow McNary to have a separate road for special education buses, which would drop students off on the north side of the building, where new special education classrooms will be constructed.

As Keizer has grown, the high school campus has become surrounded on nearly all sides, by homes to the west and south, the busy Lockhaven Drive to the north, and a mobile home park on the northeast corner of the property. State law requires school districts to acquire land within urban growth boundaries, which leaves the district with few options.

“We looked at the only vacant area around the campus, and that is the St. Edward property,” said Mike Wolfe, the district’s chief operations officer.

The district and church are at odds over both the amount of land to be sold, and a fair price for it. An appraiser hired by the district valued the land at $1.39 million, which parish leaders said is below a fair market value.

Church leaders said they’re willing to sell some land, but balked at the six-acre figure. The parish was formed a half century ago and serves a growing congregation of about 1,200 families, officer manager Cyndie Harris said.

The church runs dozens of programs and community groups: blood pressure screenings provided by volunteer nurses, food drives for students whose families can’t afford groceries and outreach to Marion County inmates.

In 2014, the parish built a new church with more space for worshipers and large windows to let in natural light. They’re still hoping to expand by adding a community center, new office complex and additional parking, which couldn’t happen if all the land is sold.

“That would have a very detrimental impact on the parish’s future,” said Bonnie Henny, the parish business manager, in an emailed statement.

The conversation became public this week when district officials asked the school board to authorize using eminent domain. The board is scheduled to vote on that request Nov. 13.

Eminent domain is a legal process allowing government bodies to take private property for public use, and then compensate the owner with a fair price.

To take land by eminent domain, the district would seek a court order condemning the land. The case could be settled from there if both parties agree on a fair price, or go to a trial where a jury would decide how much the district should pay.

School districts have broad authority under that law, and it’s rare to see a successful legal challenge to taking private property, said Kevin Shuba, an attorney for the district who’s working on the acquisition. More often, legal battles are over the amount of money to be paid.

The district last used eminent domain in 2010 to acquire land to build Straub Middle School and Kalapuya Elementary School after they couldn’t agree on a price with the owner. That case was settled before going to trial in 2013.

Even if the board votes to let the district move ahead, it’s possible the sale could be resolved before an eminent domain filing.

“We believe that there’s still opportunities to maybe find common ground,” Shuba said while presenting the plan to the board.

Wolfe said the district has three options for McNary: acquire 6.18 acres from St. Edward, acquire the land now occupied by homes in the area surrounding McNary, or scrap plans to renovate the campus.

School board member Jim Green said the board would prefer not to acquire land by eminent domain, but “it’s either St. Edward or we condemn homes,” Green said. “I don’t want to displace a homeowner.”

Trying to acquire land from homeowners would be far more disruptive, Wolfe said, and not moving ahead with renovations would betray public trust, since the district promised improvements to McNary as part of the $620 million bond voters approved earlier this year.

The district looked for other vacant land near McNary as a possible site for athletic fields, but didn’t find anything suitable, Wolfe said.

Discussions about the acquisition began in July 2017, when senior district staff, including Superintendent Christy Perry, met at the parish to discuss the purchase, emails from the district show.

Initially, the district’s plan was to buy land for two softball and one soccer field and lease additional land for tennis courts and parking.

On Nov. 3, 2017, David Hughes, the district’s property manager, requested permission from the parish to proceed with a site survey paid for by the district, a site plan and a property assessment.

The site plan would “determine the amount of land required to develop a 2 softball / 1 soccer field combination area for purchase. This will also determine what remaining space would be available for a long-term lease for four (4) tennis courts and a parking lot,” Hughes wrote.

Henny responded with the parish’s OK. The assessment was completed in January.

Wolfe said it became clear the district would need to buy all the land, rather than lease a portion of it, after conversations with district lawyers and the school board. Building structures the district owns with bond funding on leased land is “very, very complicated,” he said, and school board members told him they supported a purchase.

When Wolfe approached parish leaders about a larger purchase over the summer, he said parish leaders responded they remained interested in leasing the bulk of the land, rather than selling it.

Henny said the parish was interested in selling a smaller portion of its bare land, and potentially leasing more to the district, but never intended to sell such a large amount. She said the district’s interest in buying the full amount rather than leasing it “came as quite a shock” to the parish.

“The district also strongly relayed that the parish had no choice in the matter, and that if the parish did not want to sell all of the bare land, the district would sue the parish and take it by eminent domain,” Henny wrote in a statement.

The parish finance committee hasn't obtained its own appraisal of the land, although they did authorize one in February. Henny said the parish is waiting for a written offer. Wolfe said the district hasn’t formally offered to buy the property because the church indicated the price was too low.

“We are praying for a peaceful resolution,” Henny’s statement said, adding that the parish would not hesitate to defend its property rights.

A new church, built on the St. Edward campus in 2014, serves a growing parish of about 1,200 families. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Got a tip? Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.