Unable to agree to a purchase price for the site of the former Montopolis Negro School, Austin will move forward with plans to take it through eminent domain proceedings.
Shortly before 1 a.m. Friday — in the 13th hour of a 16-hour City Council meeting — council members unanimously voted to file an eminent domain lawsuit against the owner of the former school’s property at 500 Montopolis Drive. The city has proposed paying $362,000 for the 0.85-acre tract of land.
“This is one where there’s been a lot of pain, a lot of hurt feelings, and there’s been a struggle to save a historic site,” said Susana Almanza, an East Austin activist. “We didn’t want to see it torn down and replaced with condos.”
The council voted last year to try to buy the property, with plans to turn it into a museum and community space.
Austin Stowell of KEEP Real Estate was unaware of the property’s historic significance when he bought it in 2015 and first proposed demolishing the building. He changed those plans to include preserving the schoolhouse as part of a mixed-use development.
“Should a building that’s being offered for private preservation be on the taxpayer’s budget list?” his wife, Stephanie Stowell, asked the council Friday. “Not only for renovation of the structure, but maintenance and future programming. If the city feels it appropriate to take our property away via eminent domain, we deserve market compensation.”
To seize property through eminent domain, the city must show that the property is for public use, that no other property could fulfill the desired use and that it will provide adequate compensation to the owner.
The city’s effort to acquire the Montopolis tract likely easily meets the first two requirements, said Bill Peacock, an eminent domain expert at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. The argument will be whether the city’s proposed $362,000 compensation, based on an appraisal, qualifies as a fair estimate of the property’s value.
“The problem with eminent domain overall is government agencies that don’t like the price someone wants for something in market negotiations just go to the fallback of eminent domain,” Peacock said. “There are some (appraisers) who do business for government entities and will come in on the low end, and (there are) appraisers who value properties for owners who come in on the high end.”
Neither the city nor Austin Stowell would say what Stowell’s asking price was for the property, citing the expected litigation.
The former Montopolis school is one of the last surviving structures among 42 segregated, rural schools that Travis County operated for black children when Austin schools refused to enroll them. Built in 1935 on land donated from St. Edward’s Baptist Church, the Montopolis school replaced one on Bastrop Highway that dated to 1891.
Local activist and anthropologist Fred McGhee called retrieving the land through eminent domain poetic justice.
“Thirty years ago, St. Edwards Baptist Church, which is the sponsor of the building on this particular site … had its property taken by the city of Austin in an eminent domain proceeding under the justification that the city would build a road, and then the city never built the road,” he said. “Rarely does a body such as this have the opportunity to literally do a one-for-one, tit-for-tat restorative justice like this.”