April Harrington said she didn't go looking for all the attention she has been receiving from local media recently.
Harrington is the owner of Earth Elements, a farm, bakery and production kitchen. Her facility sits just outside Lexington and right in the path of State Highway 77, a stretch of road that is being widened to four lanes. Her negotiations with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation about the fair market value of her property have pushed her into the spotlight. It's a location where she's not really comfortable.
"All the news coverage lately isn't because I started calling the media," she said. "I want to be clear about that. My customers have finally reached the point where they're ready to do something about this. My employees are in a full panic."
Harrington's story first received widespread attention when Bob Waldrop, founder of the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, sent an appeal to local media to broadcast the story, as well as an appeal for Oklahomans to contact state politicians on Harrington's behalf.
At issue is the fair market value of Harrington's property and the allocation of enough time to relocate her facility. Kurt Harms, chief of the right-of-way and utilities division for ODOT, said the state is not in a hurry to take Harrington's land, and that she'll be given plenty of time to move her business.
"We're in the negotiation phase now," Harms said. "We've presented April with an offer. We want to resolve this. We are never in a hurry to get to a condemnation proceeding; it's the last option on the table."
The condemnation proceeding only occurs when the state and the property owner can't agree on fair market value. Once the proceeding is scheduled, an independent panel is appointed to appraise the property. According to Harms, the people chosen for the panel for Cleveland County are not required to be certified appraisers, but are required to be property owners.
"It's another layer of protection for the property owner," he said. "You basically have three independent property owners who assess the situation without the principal parties present. Sometimes, the property owner comes out with more money; sometimes, less."
Justin Hiersche, Harrington's attorney, said he believes ODOT is proceeding with the negotiations in good faith, but he is concerned about the initial offer.
"April had an appraisal done in 2007," Hiersche said, "and the offer ODOT made was significantly lower than that appraisal. That isn't how land prices work in Oklahoma; we're not living in California or Florida."
Neither Harms nor Hiersche would discuss actual numbers, but both said they had confidence the negotiation process would work.
"We're basically discussing what the actual meaning of 'fair market value' is," Hiersche said.
Harrington said she has asked contractors to give her an accurate estimate of the amount required to relocate her business, and until all the bids were in, she couldn't make a counteroffer to ODOT. Fair market value is a little different for Harrington's business because of the unique materials required to build a sustainable facility.
Also, because of the unique materials, the amount of time required to build is greater than a non-sustainable facility. That is a serious concern to Harrington.
"I've been given a date of Jan. 1, 2011, to be off the property," she said. "The contractors say there is no way a new facility can be built by then. I'm having a hard time getting financing, too. Because of the economy, no one is loaning to small businesses. My employees just want to know if they'll have a job."
Harrington is by all accounts critical to the local food industry. Her production kitchen buys farmers' surplus crops, processes them or preserves them for later use. What can't be sold as raw produce is processed into value-added products like jam, jelly and preserves. The process ensures farmers make money on a higher percentage of their crops.
Some of Harrington's difficulties have been directly related to the timing of the proceedings. "I have no time to get anything done during harvest," she said. "This all started right in the middle of harvest. It's negatively affected my business."
Harms said Harrington will be given plenty of time to relocate.
"Each business is different," he said. "You can't move the GM plant in 90 days. The statute says 'no less than 90 days,' and we'll move forward making good choices about how best to resolve this. We have plenty of time."
Work on the section of highway isn't scheduled to begin until 2016, but Hiersche is skeptical.
"Based on what I know about ODOT and how they work, they would not be pushing for this land at this time if construction wasn't going to begin until 2016," he said.
David Meuser, a spokesman for ODOT, said, "It's currently slated for 2016, but that date is subject to change."
Harrington said she understands the need to expand the highway, and insisted she is not fighting to save her building.
"I just want fair value and a few extra months to move," she said. "We support 50 Oklahoma farmers and employ eight Oklahomans full-time, and as many as 14 seasonally."
top photo Earth Elements owner April Harrington and baker Kevin Faulkner inspect fresh cookies at the farm, bakery and production kitchen.
bottom photo The exterior of the farm. Photos/Mark Hancock