March 27th. The Kansas Supreme Court has issued its opinion in Winkel v. Miller (No. 99,768), an eminent domain case between Karl and Karen Winkel, Trustees of the Winkel Trust and the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT). In a unanimous opinion, written by Justice Johnson the court rejected the Winkel’s attempt to block KDOT’s condemnation of part of their land and thus end the operation of an asphalt mixing strip adjacent to their land. Note: This case was argued in the January sitting of the Court, after former Chief Justice Kay McFarland’s retirement. District Judge Edward Bouker served as the seventh member of the court hearing the case.
Winkel owns an 80 acre farm in Mitchell County, bounded on the east side by the north/south county highway. In 1952, the highway was reworked and run across the north-east corner of the property belonging to Winkel so that a 2 acre triangle was separated from the rest of the land. At that time KDOT acquired an easement to use part of the triangle. In the early 1990s, KDOT acquired a plot of land on the far side of where the old highway ran which it uses as an asphalt mixing strip. The old highway that ran up the east side of the triangle was used as an access road by KDOT.
In 1994 Winkel brought an unsuccessful suit to block the operation of the mixing strip citing claims that the rest of the property was adversely affected by pollution and nuisance. This case was rejected in a summary judgement in District Court. In 2003, Winkel brought another suit which sought to show that KDOT exceeded the terms of its original 1952 easement on the triangular piece of land and that it had abandoned its claim through not using it for 42 years. This case was dismissed but during its proceedings it was discovered that Mitchell County had abandoned its ownership of the old highway which had been used as an access road and that therefore Winkel owned half of it. As a result of this the Court of Appeals found partly for Winkel but declined to block KDOT’s use of the land, since Winkel could pursue appropriate compensation legally. This latter point is a major part of eminent domain law in Kansas: as a general rule Courts will not block eminent domain actions through an injunction, but will enforce appropriate compensation (which was affirmed again in this decision). After being unable to resolve their differences with Winkel, KDOT filed an eminent domain action to condemn the whole triangular piece of land and pay compensation for it, giving rise to this case. This case resulted in a summary judgement in KDOT’s favor in the District Court, giving rise to this appeal.
Winkel challenges the eminent domain action on two grounds, as well as reopening the claim of nuisance from 1994. The court found against Winkel on all three issues.
First, Winkel argued that KDOT did not properly exercise its power of eminent domain here because it could not show that it needed the triangle of land over and above some other locations in Mitchell County. The Court rejected this argument since the purpose of taking the piece of land is to store gravel and park vehicles, and nowhere else in Mitchell County does KDOT already own a mixing strip. Therefore this piece of land clearly met that part of the necessity test. Winkel also argued that the statute authorizing eminent domain required KDOT to take a fee simple interest in the property, rather than merely an easement. This was rejected by the court based on the wording of the statute which gives KDOT flexibility in the type of ownership it can take. Furthermore the Court noted that the appraisers awarded Winkel the full value of the plot of land, even though it was only condemned for an easement.
Winkel’s second argument was that the appraisal did not take into account the decline in the value of the remaining portion of land (the 78 acre farmstead). The Court noted that this dispute over the valuation model is able to be litigated in a separate case which is pending over the assigned valuations.
Finally, the Court upheld the decision in the District Court that Winkel was attempting to re-litigate the 1994 claim of nuisance and that this was blocked under res judicata. The Court found that the parties and issue being disputed were the same, that the evidence supporting Winkel’s claim was the same. It therefore blocked the attempt to re-open this.