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March 19, 2013

Wheaton College Opposes District 41's Intention to Take its East Campus

On March 13, Glen Ellyn School District 41 announced its intention to acquire Wheaton College’s East Campus property for the purpose of constructing a new junior high school. The District’s “E-News” letter stated that if Wheaton College will not voluntarily sell its East Campus property to the District, the District “may decide to pursue its legal right as a governmental body to purchase the property without the owner's consent through eminent domain.”

Wheaton College strongly opposes the District’s proposed course of action.

As a private institution, Wheaton College does not have the government’s power to acquire property through eminent domain. Rather, with careful planning and foresight, the College may acquire strategic property only when neighboring owners are willing sellers. More than 15 years ago, the College purchased the parcels comprising its 15-acre East Campus property, located at 1825 College Avenue along the Wheaton-Glen Ellyn border, for its own long-term objectives related to its educational and religious mission. The College has communicated with the District that selling the East Campus property is not a viable option.

It is unfortunate that one educational institution would consider an attempt to take the property of another. Yet the District’s proposal to consider an eminent domain action against the College also seems poorly conceived:

The District has dismissed the possibility of renovating its current facilities and has rejected several alternative sites. Yet the District’s view that it could purchase Wheaton College’s East Campus property for only $3 million, the amount designated from the District’s reserve funds, shows a significant undervaluation of the property. The College’s recent purchase of a nearby 5.3 acre parcel for more than $8 million suggests a value of its East Campus property in excess of $20 million.

The District’s proposal to attempt a forcible taking of the College’s East Campus and then sell it at some time in the future if community support cannot be obtained to build a new campus is ill-advised and unfair and, armed with the power of eminent domain, puts the College at risk of losing millions of dollars.

The District’s newsletter informs its constituents that if it initiates an eminent domain proceeding, it can “abandon the process at any point.” This approach shows little consideration for the College’s rights and fails to recognize the potentially high cost of such a strategy. For example, a few years ago Illinois Prairie School District 204 initiated eminent domain proceedings to obtain a 55-acre site on the border of Aurora and Naperville to build a new high school. When a jury recently priced the property at $31 million, more than twice the school district’s valuation, the school district abandoned its efforts to acquire the land. This led to a court order requiring the school district to pay the landowners $5.9 million in costs, expenses, and attorney’s fees.

In addition to being unfair, the District’s proposal is unwise. Wheaton College has significant, unique legal protections by virtue of its Charter from the State of Illinois, as well as Federal and State religious freedom rights.

The District’s proposed course of action runs counter to its proclaimed values of developing a “culture of care” that respects the rights of others, values cooperation with the local community, and eradicates bullying.

Wheaton College will vigorously defend itself against any attempt by the District to take its property by eminent domain, and encourages the District to reconsider its course.