Greg Vail, at left, speaks on behalf of homeowner Matt Robinette, seated next to him, during a compensation commission hearing Jan. 25, 2023, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (photo/Cindy Hadish)

By Cindy Hadish

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Matt Robinette’s home survived Iowa’s hurricane-strength derecho in 2020 and the devastating 2008 flood, but the city of Cedar Rapids has started the process of eminent domain to take his home and large double lot against his consent.

The city intends to move forward with its West Side Cedar River flood control project by condemning properties when the owners refuse to sell, according to court documents.

Robinette’s home, 1523 Fifth St. NW, is the first in what could be up to 20 cases of eminent domain in the historic working-class Time Check Neighborhood.

Bethany Niermeyer, a former Time Check Neighborhood resident, listens during the compensation commission hearing on Jan. 25, 2023. (photo/Cindy Hadish)

Rita Rasmussen, real estate services manager for the city, said she did not know the exact number of homes that might be affected by the process, but Rob Davis, the city’s flood control program manager, estimated 15 to 20 homes could be affected by the flood control project, including some along Ellis Boulevard NW.

Davis said Robinette’s case was the first use of eminent domain for Cedar Rapids flood control.

He and Rasmussen were among several city representatives at a compensation commission hearing Jan. 25, 2023, at the Linn County Sheriff’s Office, to decide the value of Robinette’s property.

Greg Vail, who also lives in the Time Check Neighborhood and spoke on behalf of Robinette, said Robinette was only offered $135,000 by the city to buy a comparable home.

Vail pointed out the city-hired appraiser gave little to no value for the size of Robinette’s lot, and noted his 2 1/2-stall garage, rooftop skylights, updated plumbing and electrical systems, hot tub and other amenities, as well as his view and access to the nearby Cedar River.

“This isn’t a voluntary buyout,” Vail told the commission. “He should get the maximum, not the minimum, for his property.”

Matt Robinette’s Cedar Rapids home along the Cedar River is shown Jan. 25, 2023, near a Northwest Neighborhood sign that celebrated recovery from the 2008 flood. (photo/Cindy Hadish)

The three women and three men on the compensation commission, many of whom have experience in real estate, took a site visit to Robinette’s three-bedroom, two-bath home and asked Russ Manternach, who performed the appraisal, what type of experience he had with home appraisals in the city.

Manternach, who primarily works with commercial properties, admitted he is not experienced in home appraisals in Cedar Rapids, but worked with another appraiser on Robinette’s property.

Commission members announced after deliberating in closed session that the house should have a fair market value of $150,000 and Robinette should receive $5,000 for moving expenses, for a total of $155,000.

Robinette, who bought the home in 1995, said he would likely hire an attorney to appeal.

“I got this property because it was so unique,” he said of the late-1800s home and large lot, which is just minutes away from his job with the U.S. Postal Service, and is centrally located in Cedar Rapids. “We’ve been through the derecho and the flood and the wood field all around us, chipping trees 24/7. I like being by the river. Me and the geese are perfectly happy there.”

More than a dozen supporters of Robinette, including other affected homeowners, attended the hearing.

“They’re coming for us next,” said Ajai Dittmar, who received a letter earlier this month from the city regarding her home, built in 1900, where she has lived the past 17 years. “Why are we being left out of flood recovery?”

Dittmar, who enjoys kayaking on the Cedar River, said she would prefer to remain in her home, even as houses all around her were demolished after the 2008 flood.

“Just let me live my life,” Dittmar said of the struggles she and other neighbors have faced with the city. “It’s my dream home and now they’re trying to take it.”

Commission members, at right, listen during a compensation hearing Jan. 25, 2023, at the Linn County Sheriff’s Office, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (photo/Cindy Hadish)
A rendering shows the proposed Cedar River flood project that would cut through Matt Robinette’s property on Fifth Street NW.