Rock Island has lost its plea in court to have the right to move portions of the levee on Big Island, and city officials are vowing to fight the ruling.
Circuit Court Judge Lori Lefstein rules this week that Rock Island does not have the authority to condemn portions of the levee that protects the 3,000 acres of Big Island and the village of Milan, which sits six feet below it.
The city bought about 90 acres on Big Island last year, planning a development dubbed Jumer's Crossing. Billed as a major retail center, the development requires access to and from the nearby Illinois 92. To get it, the city wants to relocate portions of the levee, and officials have contended it is not necessary to get the blessing of the two federally approved sponsors of the flood-control system to do so.
The judge ruled that the city cannot exercise the eminent domain act to condemn property that is owned by the Big Island River Conservancy District, because the city lacks the statutory authority to take land from the district. Milan and the district are legally obligated to operate and maintain the levee, and the district is not recognized under the eminent domain act as a body that land can be taken from, the judge said.
City officials said Tuesday that they will appeal the case.
If the city loses again, the amount owed in legal fees is likely to exceed a quarter-million dollars. The judge indicated in her ruling that the city may be responsible for the district's legal fees.
Milan Village Administrator Steve Siever said Wednesday that parties disputing the city's actions shared some legal resources, and the clock still may be ticking on billable hours, given the city's intention to appeal.
"I've been saying it's in excess of $100,000, and it is going to be north of that," he said of the two groups' legal fees.
Rock Island Mayor Dennis Pauley confirmed Wednesday that the city's costs already are in excess of $142,000.
A similar legal battle was waged in 2004 when a former Big Island land owner proposed a mining operation on the island. The authority over the levee system by the two co-sponsors was challenged, but it was confirmed in court. The property owner, RiverStone, filed an appeal but later withdrew. That case was heard in federal court, because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was one of the involved parties.
In the recent case, Rock Island's attorneys argued the federal law that prohibits any "person or persons" from taking, altering, moving or destroying a levee in federal control does not apply to the city, because the city is not a person or persons.
Lefstein rejected the argument, saying the Navigable Waters Act requires the approval of federal authorities before the city, or anyone else, could change the Big Island levee.