Last week, the Plano City Council told Effie Saifi that her eminent domain petition-ordinance had failed. The development was only the latest in her and the city’s fight over a strip of land behind Montessori Children’s House in Plano for nearly five years.
Her school is on Hedgcoxe Road and backs up to a creek and treeline that enclose it. The location creates a private and safe playground area for the children. But the City of Plano wants the strip of land behind the school to finish the Preston Ridge Trail. Saifi worries that the trail will create more traffic in the area and put the kids in danger.
Because of that, she and her team created an ordinance-turned-petition to limit the city’s use of eminent domain. It needed 4,403 signatures for the city council to either enact it or put it on the November ballot. While Saifi and her supporters gathered 7,456 signatures, City Secretary Lisa Henderson said she could only verify 4,237. Henderson cited signers not including the required information as the main reason many couldn’t be verified.
But in a Monday press release from Saifi and her support group “Planoites for Property Rights,” they announced that the petition-signature validation company Allied Data Service confirmed 5,244 valid signatures.
“We have a permanent archive of almost every signature collected for the current eminent domain petition in Plano and an accounting of all the signatures scanned,” Michael Rhodes, founder and head of the Allied Data Service, said in the release. “Of those submitted by MCH to undergo the multilevel screening process for verification, MCH has collected 8,240 raw signatures, of which 5,244 are valid.”
Why Was The Outcome Different This Time?
At last week’s special meeting, Henderson said a petition must contain a signature, printed name, residence address, county of registration, date of signing, and date of birth or voter registration number. Many of the signatures on Saifi’s petition-ordinance were invalid because they lacked some of these qualifications.
However, Mina Saifi, Saifi’s daughter and attorney, said that a petition signature only needs a date of birth or a voter registration number and county. She said the only thing required to be in the signer’s handwriting is the signature itself.
This isn’t the first time a petition has had trouble being verified in Plano, the press release points out. In 2015, Henderson believed that state law prohibited her from accepting a petition protesting Plano Tomorrow. Initially, the City of Plano and Henderson won the case in Sept. 2019. But the Fifth District Court of Appeals rejected that ruling over the summer. Jack Ternan, Saifi’s other attorney, said in the release that the Plano city charter doesn’t give Henderson “a role in counting or validating signatures on a petition.”
In the press release, Saifi and her team made numerous rebuttals to how the city has explained the case. For example, City Attorney Paige Mims said at a special meeting that the city considered dismissing the case against the school. She said the city offered Saifi $50,000 to dismiss the case and keep the land. Allegedly, Mims said that Saifi wanted more money and asked for another $25,000.
Saifi and her team claim that the city was correct that it offered to withdraw the case. But they say Saifi did accept that offer. Allegedly, the city reneged after finding out they would have to pay the landowner’s fees if they withdrew the case. Because of that, the city offered to settle for $50,000, and Saifi accepted the offer again. But, allegedly, the city didn’t withdraw the case or pay for attorneys’ fees.
At this point, between both sides, it’s unclear whose sequence of events is the most accurate. Both the city and the school have made various claims about what has happened with the case over the years.
What Happens Now?
Rather than going through each argument both parties have made against each other, it makes more sense to answer the question of what will happen next since Saifi and Planoites for Property Rights got the petition signatures verified by another company.
According to Saifi, the answer to that question is still uncertain as her attorneys continue to figure out next steps. What is for certain is that special commissioners offered Saifi $28,588, and Saifi appealed, which will be heard on July 19. Saifi is appealing that offer because, according to the press release, that amount “was solely to pay for one of the two easements sought in litigation against” Saifi and the school and isn’t “just compensation.”
In response to Saifi’s press release, City of Plano Director of Media Relations Steve Stoler said that the city still stands by its original statement, released April 20, after the special meeting where they announced that the petition failed. The original release reiterates that the petition had failed and the ordinance conflicted with state law and city charter anyway. They say the city has the authority to use condemnation to get land for public purposes.
“The facts have not changed,” Stoler said.
But Saifi said she genuinely hopes that the verification from the other company will push the city to reconsider. She said whether it be through another special meeting or some other format, she just wants the findings to be, at least, addressed by the city.
“I, personally, just hope that the city will revisit the decision and do the right thing,” Saifi said.