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In the Way of Progress

The UA threatens to use eminent domain to boot a 78-year-old out of his longtime home

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The footprint of a large new student housing complex planned for the UA campus is stepping all over a legal agreement enacted almost 12-years ago--and that dramatic change of course by university officials doesn't bode well for 78-year-old Bill Kennedy.

Kennedy's saga began in 1995, when the UA announced it wanted to purchase and demolish three houses on Sixth Street just east of Euclid Avenue (See "Park 'N' Pay," Aug. 8, 1996). These historic homes--two were rental units, while Kennedy and his family occupied the other--were located near the Coronado dorm, inside the university's defined campus boundary. Based on a perceived need, university administrators decided they wanted to use the land to expand a nearby parking lot.

The goal of saving Kennedy's house--built by his father in 1919--became the center of an intense public-relations battle, pitting the UA against the homeowner, who was backed by numerous neighborhood activists. After several months of arguing the issue in the media, eventually the matter went to the Arizona Board of Regents in January 1996.

According to the minutes of the regents' meeting, campus administrators informed the board, "Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy would be granted a life estate that would allow them to live on their property as long as they wish, but would allow the university to take ownership of the property."

After the regents approved this compromise arrangement, Kennedy had no other choice--if he wanted to stay in the house--than to take the offer. The final document, however, excluded his wife from its provisions.

Subsequently, the university purchased the house for $80,000 and immediately subtracted $23,000 for future rent, a figure based on Kennedy's life expectancy. Over the past 11 years, Kennedy believes he has spent much more than $57,000 to maintain and improve the property, since he, not the university, was responsible for those items.

That is how things remained--until the life-estate arrangement was called into question several months ago, when university officials decided to proceed with building a residence hall on the block. Following the recommendations of the adopted campus plan, the project is supposed to become a high-density student-living environment.

At a meeting held last week, university officials and the project architect indicated the project would accommodate 600 students in five buildings, ranging in height from three to six stories.

"Our schedule is very aggressive," announced UA project manager Debra Johnson. "Parents want their kids to live on campus. Our optimistic schedule has construction beginning next October."

Meanwhile, even though discussions to buy out the life estate began some time ago, the Kennedys and university officials remain far apart. As a result, on Oct. 17, the UA threatened to use a legal sledgehammer to end the negotiations.

In a letter to Kennedy's attorney, UA official Thomas Thompson--a special assistant to Senior UA Vice President for Business Affairs Joel Valdez--offered $100,000 for the Kennedys to vacate the life estate. If this amount was not accepted, Thompson wrote that the university "will request authority from the Arizona Board of Regents to condemn Mr. Kennedy's remaining life estate and proceed with an eminent domain action. I hope this will not be necessary."

While Thompson didn't return a phone call seeking an explanation on how the $100,000 figure was determined, Kennedy believes he should either be allowed to remain in the house or receive enough money to purchase a comparable home and pay for moving expenses. Instead, the UA's threat leaves him facing eviction and an uncertain future.

In a counter proposal sent on Oct. 25, Kennedy told Thompson: "I'm asking for you to do the right thing and not throw an elderly couple out on the street because I simply didn't die soon enough to meet the university's development plans."

That same day, University President Robert Shelton sent an e-mail to Kennedy's son stating that the life estate "means he (Bill Kennedy) is entitled to all incidents of ownership as long as he lives." Shelton additionally commented that he hoped the issue could be resolved amicably.

That is also the outcome which Board of Regents member Dennis DeConcini wants to see happen. Not having heard of this case before being contacted by the Weekly, the former U.S. senator and current Tucson businessman wonders, "Is using eminent domain the right thing to do?"

Having dealt with eminent-domain issues as part of his business, DeConcini continues: "In eminent-domain cases, the government often offers below market value, and there's always room to negotiate up.

"The use of eminent domain will not be well received public-relations wise," DeConcini adds, "to evict someone 78 years old. It would be wise to work out an arrangement, and I think they will."

Kennedy also hopes the issue can be resolved in a satisfactory fashion. In his recent letter, he told Thompson, "I would love to shake hands and announce to the city, state and country this week that the university has done right by me, and even though long term adversaries, we have reached a fair and honest agreement."

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