COA: Judgment affirmed in eminent domain action

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment to a town in an eminent domain action when it found the land was neither real property occupied by an owner nor agricultural land, so the previous owners were not entitled to receive enhanced compensation.   

After sitting vacant for five years, property owned by the Guzzo family was sought for purchase by the Town of St. John in Lake County for a “Roadway Improvement and Economic Development Project.” The 8.65-acre property was located in a highway commercial zoning district as well as a light industrial district, and had no occupants living in its home since 2009.

When the Guzzos denied the town’s offer of purchase, St. John instituted condemnation proceedings. The trial court approved and entered an agreed order of appropriation of real estate and appointment of appraisers, pursuant to which the property was appropriated by the town and was to be appraised by three court-appointed appraisers.

St. John formally acquired the land in October 2014. The town deposited an appraisal amount of $745,000 with the trial court, but the Guzzos filed a motion for partial summary judgment requesting more compensation on the grounds that the land was residential property and agricultural land.

The trial court granted summary judgment to St. John and concluded the land did not qualify as residential property or agricultural land.

On appeal, the Guzzos argued that they should have received enhanced compensation for the property pursuant to Indiana Code section 32-24- 4.5-8. In their argument, the Guzzos contended they are entitled to 150 percent of fair market value for the land’s qualification as occupied real property or 125 percent of fair market value for its qualification as agricultural land.

But the appellate court found the first argument was without merit, noting that no one had lived in the home since 2009, and the Guzzos’ mowing and repairing of the property did not equal occupancy.

“If we were to accept the Guzzos’ proposed interpretation — essentially that the Property qualifies if any owner ever resided on it — then very little land in the State of Indiana would fail to qualify for 150% compensation,” Judge Cale Bradford wrote for the court. “This would have the effect of rendering the other two compensation categories in Indiana Code section 32-24-4.5-8 largely superfluous, and it is well-settled that ‘[w]e must not interpret one provision of a statute so as to render other provisions of the same meaningless.’”

Similarly, the appellate court found that the property did not qualify as agricultural land under the statute because there was no agriculture occurring on the Property at the time of the taking.

“The Guzzos argue that the statute does not refer to the use of the land but, rather, its character. While this is true, it does not get the Guzzos where they need to go, because it is a parcel’s use for agriculture that gives it ‘agricultural’ character,” Bradford wrote.

“’Agriculture’ is an activity, as opposed to some inherent characteristic such as soil type or location, which may be defined as ‘[t]he science or art of cultivating soil, harvesting crops, and raising livestock.’”

Therefore, the appellate court affirmed the judgement of the trial court in David Joseph Guzzo, Robert Glenn Guzzo, and Betty Jo Keller v. Town of St. John, Lake County, Indiana, 45A05-1711-PL-2736.

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