City Council Moves on Eminent Domain for Lowell High Project

March 7, 2018 GMT

LOWELL -- At the request of a unanimous City Council, the Law Department will begin the process of taking the medical office building adjacent to the high school by eminent domain.

The decision, which the council had rejected before the November election saw three new members oust incumbents, will allow the city to expand Lowell High School as it undergoes a major renovation expected to cost around $350 million.

The vote was a milestone for the seven councilors who campaigned on a promise to move forward with the expanded, downtown high school plan, rather than building the new school at Cawley Stadium. After several delays following the election, the project is once again moving forward.

“This process is going to take a good amount of time and I think we need to get going on it,” Councilor Edward Kennedy said of the eminent domain taking.

The council also voted Tuesday night to appropriate $15,000 to pay for appraisals of the medical offices at 75 Arcand Dr., which are owned by a group of dentists and orthodontists.

The Law Department must still navigate a lengthy eminent domain process and it could be November before the city has both title and actual physical possession of the property. The City Council will have to vote again, likely in June, to file a formal notice of taking.

The short discussion and unanimous vote on Tuesday belied the divisiveness of the issue.

The biggest obstacle to the eminent domain acquisition was political opposition. Prior to the November election, four city councilors were steadfastly opposed to the move, characterizing it as a betrayal of respected business owners who have been in Lowell for years.

Those councilors all favored building a new school at Cawley Stadium and three of them -- Rita Mercier, Dan Rourke, and Corey Belanger -- had received campaign donations from the building’s owners.

Only Mercier and Rodney Elliott remain on the council from the group that previously blocked the taking, though, and while neither were enthusiastic about the taking they accepted the situation.

“I wasn’t a supporter of eminent domain, but voters spoke ... and now I will listen to the voters,” Elliott said.

Mercier said she wants to make sure that the city comes up with a plan to relocate the dentists and orthodontists at 75 Arcand Dr., which is why she supported Tuesday’s motion.

She will not, however, vote in favor of the actual notice of taking when the time comes to do that, she said.

In October, when the balance on the City Council was still against taking the medical offices by eminent domain, the building owners hired attorney Peter Flynn, an eminent domain expert, to represent them.

In a letter to his clients, Flynn wrote that the relocation process could be lengthy and expensive for the city.

While the owners cannot prevent the city from taking the building, they are entitled to relocation assistance.

The city must now appraise the property to determine fair-market compensation and reach out to the Department of Housing and Community Development to help develop a relocation plan.

Follow Todd Feathers on Twitter @ToddFeathers.