Effie Saifi, director of Montessori Children’s House in Plano, loves the location of her school. On Hedgcoxe Road, it backs up to a creek and treeline that enclose it. It’s a private, safe playground area for children.
But the strip of land behind the school is also in high demand. The City of Plano needs the strip to finish the Preston Ridge Trail, which would connect Frisco to Plano, and Plano to Dallas. But Saifi wants to keep it. Saifi’s Plano Montessori school and the City of Plano have been fighting this issue of eminent domain for nearly half a decade.
But the battle may soon come to an end. Saifi has drafted an ordinance that would restrict the city’s use of eminent domain. The ordinance is circulating as a petition and needs 4,500 hard copy signatures from registered Plano voters in order to force the city council to vote on it.
Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere told council members and residents that they received more than 835 pages with nearly 7,500 signatures. The staff is still counting the signatures and won’t vote until they are all verified.
“The reason for that is because we’ve chosen to continue to operate in a professional, fair, legal manner that will [provide] the best outcome for all involved in fairness of reviewing the information we see,” LaRosiliere said.
Early next week, the council must make one of two decisions if enough signatures are verified — enact it or call for a public vote on it, said Steve Stoler, director of media relations for the City of Plano.
The Montessori School’s Side
Like all other Montessori schools, Saifi founded the private school based on Dr. Maria Montessori’s philosophies of a self-paced approach to education that creates curiosity and self-sufficiency. She had previous experience in counseling and education in traditional and private Montessori school settings and learned about Dr. Montessori when she was looking for a school for her daughter 35 years ago. She worked for 10 years to save money and make a down payment for the land to open the Montessori School.
“I believe in it,” she says of Montessori’s philosophies. “It’s not simply a business for me — it’s my soul.”
The city filed the lawsuit against Saifi five years ago. Saifi argues that Plano using eminent domain to take the strip of land behind the Montessori school could create a safety issue. She told Local Profile in January that she worries that without privacy at the playground, it could open the door to strangers, pollution and litter, which would damage the school’s business and ability to protect its students.
And her story has reached others — from her inner circle to other parents of Montessori students. With that, Saifi sought the help of Jack Turnan, a Plano attorney, to draft her ordinance-turned-petition for the group “Planoites for Property Rights.”
The ordinance would restrict the city’s power to use eminent domain to obtain private property. The city could only use eminent domain for public use such as highways or streets, municipal buildings or utility systems, or for public use “with the written consent of each and every owner of the property being taken,” according to the ordinance.
But even if the city is allowed to use eminent domain under the ordinance’s two exemptions, it can only take private property with the consent of each property owner or when there is no other land available.
“We all love bike trails, but this one is a very different situation,” Saifi said. “Use [eminent domain] when it’s really necessary, and there’s no other option. For the gas line, for water, for electricity. But don’t abuse eminent domain and ruin a school plan for a small connection that changes nothing else.”
Saifi also said that the fight has taken a toll on her health. In 2018, she had to have brain surgery for a tumor. “All of the energy I could be putting elsewhere… it’s all mentally abusing me. My health from pushing doctor’s appointments, my husband, my daughter… we’ve all been affected physically and emotionally.”
The City of Plano’s Claim
About a week ago, LaRosiliere and Plano City Attorney Paige Mims discussed the situation after a public comment at a city council meeting about the Montessori vs. Plano case. LaRosiliere said that a false narrative of Plano being a “big, bad” city that tramples over its citizens is “patently false.”
“That’s not how we’ve operated,” LaRosiliere said. “We’ve been consistent in terms of how we’ve worked towards collaborating and trying to find the best solution. That narrative is not consistent with who we are.”
Mims further clarified the city’s side of the issue. She said that once it became clear they couldn’t resolve Saifi’s case, the city filed the petition and the court appointed three special commissioners to hear the initial case. She said the city gave Saifi notice of the hearing date but she didn’t show up for it.
The city appraised the land at $25,224. Mims said they offered to settle for $31,530, which was 25% more than the case’s appraised value. But Saifi didn’t accept the offer, so special commissioners only offered her $28,588. She then decided to appeal that, and the court plans to hear her appeal in July.
Mims noted that even though the appraisal was $25,224, Saifi claimed that the value of the school property and damages were worth nearly $1 million. Now she has increased that to over $2 million. Mims said most of that hefty price tag is based on Saifi’s contention that the Montessori school will have to close if Plano uses eminent domain to take the strip of land.
“The school is not going to have to close due to the trail,” Mims said. “There are elementary schools and daycare facilities operating safely along the trails and sidewalks in Plano. The owner of the Montessori school testified in her deposition that [in the past] she has taken children to walk from her school on a hike and bike trail.”
The Special Meeting
At the special meeting Wednesday evening, Saifi only had 90 seconds to plead with council members. She pointed out that she was an immigrant who came to the U.S. and worked hard over the years to accomplish her American dream.
“Establishing Montessori Children’s House and serving children in the community has been a big part of that dream,” she told council members. “So I have to fight hard to preserve it…I believe we must stand up for what is right. Not only for ourselves, but for the community itself.”
Saifi’s daughter Mina spoke about how their proposed ordinance is not as limiting to the government’s authority as it could be. She argued that the government is “maliciously taking land.”
Out of the 17 people who spoke to council members, 16 spoke in favor of adopting Saifi’s ordinance, along with the 7,500 people who signed the petition. The one speaker who did not sign it claimed that the petition made no reference to the ordinance. They also asked why Saifi was complaining about something she had agreed to 20 years ago when she signed the contract with the city.
One of Saifi’s supporters is Ben Bhatti, a lobbyist and former education adviser to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott.
“The eminent domain route of picking land to abuse another school, and actually create a detriment to that school to where it can’t actually grow or be successful, really does take a lot of choice away from parents in that area,” Bhatti said during his public comment. “So, really, looking at the way that the City of Plano has decided to take a bike path over children seems to be a very, very, very detrimental thing to the citizens of Plano, of which I am, and to the students.”
Arif Panju, managing attorney at the Institute for Justice Texas Office, told council members that their institute is watching. Panju called the city’s actions “abusive because it required people actually standing up to get the government’s attention.”
“You have an opportunity to exercise your power in two ways — either to violate rights or to secure them,” Panju said. “Our suggestion is that this council do the right thing and secure rights by finding alternative ways to deal with conveniences that constituents may want and not do so at the expense of individual rights, which are robustly protected under the Texas Constitution.”
Local Profile staffer Jordan Jarrett contributed to this report.