Landowners, state swap property

Monday, June 2, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Last year, the Department of Natural Resources was doing some routine surveying and came up with an interesting discovery: Part of James Lyons' house was in a state park.

The boundaries of Thousand Hills State Park in northern Missouri had encroached on Lyons' property by seven-tenths of an acre. And Lyons had encroached on park land by 1.7 acres.

DNR, which operates the state park system, struck a deal with Lyons to trade the land.

But for the deal to be legal required an act of the legislature and the signature of Gov. Bob Holden.

Under Missouri law, all transfers of state land require a bill to be passed by the legislature and signed by the governor -- even when there's no controversy involved.

This year, the legislature passed 11 land conveyance bills; last year, it passed six. Seldom has a year gone by without some sort of land-swap legislation.

Typically, like in the case of Thousand Hills State Park, the land deals don't attract much attention.

But one bill -- involving a prison sewer line in St. Louis County -- has proven a bit controversial this year.

The sewer line runs through the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, which lies in unincorporated St. Louis County. The Corrections Department wanted to get out of the sewer business, and the nearby city of Pacific had agreed to take over the prison's sewer line. In exchange, the city wanted to annex the prison and some surrounding land. The city and the department had a deal.

Bypassed process

But another nearby city, Eureka, said it also wanted to annex land near the prison. Eureka officials are upset that the bill essentially bypasses the typical annexation process in St. Louis County. Mayor Kevin Coffey called it "a back-door attempt by Pacific to annex property that they otherwise legally would probably not be able to annex."

Holden has not yet decided whether to sign the legislation.

But the governor already has signed the bill allowing the land swap at Thousand Hills State Park near Kirksville.

DNR spokeswoman Sue Holst said that situation was simple.

"Part of the house he bought was on our property," Holst said. "This bill just took care of that boundary discrepancy and put it back to where we thought it had been before."

Lyons did not return calls for comment.

Sen. John Cauthorn, who sponsored the Thousand Hills bill, acknowledged that his land transfer legislation was "a minor issue." Still, he said the legislature should retain the final say over such deals.

"We, as the legislators, are between the bureaucracy and the people," said Cauthorn, R-Mexico. "It doesn't take too much time. Most things are worked out before they get here."

Bills that come before the Legislature generally are supposed to be broad in scope -- written so that nothing is specifically named even if the bill is targeted at a single city or piece of property .

For example, a bill that pertains only to Boone County, would read "any county of the first classification with more than one hundred thirty-five thousand four hundred but less than one hundred thirty-five thousand five hundred inhabitants," as it is the only county in the state to fit that description.

Bills that transfer land, however, follow a different set of rules. They have to name the county and the specific plat described by the latitude and longitude of the land and may even name the person involved in the land swap.

"Generally, there can't be a law for a specific place or specific person," said Richard Moore, a Senate researcher. But "this isn't a law, this is a land transfer."

The legislature passed a bill this year that would alter that system a little. It would allow DNR to make land swaps of up to 5 acres with adjacent property owners in the case of boundary conflicts. The bill now awaits action from Holden.

"It helps us resolve some of these discrepancies without having to go through the legislature," Holst said. "These are basically just housekeeping things we have to take care of from time to time. ...As surveying techniques get better over the years, we find discrepancies from time to time, and we try to correct them."

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