City on Montopolis Negro School: Ours, Through Eminent Domain
City must agree to terms with Austin Stowell
City lawyers have moved to seize the Montopolis Negro School from KEEP Investment Group's Austin Stowell through an eminent domain lawsuit following Council's unanimous June 28 vote. Stowell bought the one-room schoolhouse in 2015, along with the 1.82 acres on which it sits at 500 Montopolis. He applied for a permit to demolish the building to make way for a single-family homes but relented after opposition formed – and insisted that he was unaware of the site's historical value. Under an adjusted site plan, Stowell sought to convert the building into a community center, using the rest of the tract for commercial development.
But opposition continued, and last September, following the Planning Commission's denial of the proposed zoning change, City Council directed staff to negotiate a deal to purchase the land from Stowell voluntarily. A third-party appraisal valued the property at $362,000, but Stowell declined the offer, leading to the eminent domain suit.
On Monday, Fred McGhee, who's led neighborhood opposition against Stowell, explained how the building was a "symbol of African-American self-help." The school's original building was built in 1891 – when Travis County was primarily occupied by sharecroppers. In 1935, it was ruined by a flood, and county officials refused to pay for repairs. As the only school that educated black children in Montopolis, the building was crucial to the community, so the Rev. J.H. Harrel of the St. Edward's Baptist Church rallied his congregation to purchase and donate the school and a new piece of land for the neighborhood's use.
McGhee hopes the city will work to imbue the building with a sense of "living history" while transforming it into a valuable asset for the community's current needs. "Montopolis is the most history-rich community in the city limits of Austin, and we do not have a single historical site or marker," he said. "And it's artifacts [like that], tangible evidence of history, that allows us to obtain an understanding of what took place in the past in a way that a history book cannot."
First, the city and Stowell must agree on a valuation. A settlement between the two can still be reached, but if they don't agree on a price, a judge-appointed panel of three special commissioners will determine one. Real Estate Services Assistant Director Alex Gale estimated that process could take two to three months – and even then, the matter may not be settled. Each party will have an opportunity to object to the price, at which point the case would go to trial.
Reached Monday, Stowell expressed dissatisfaction with the city's handling of the situation – especially their valuation of the land. He'll hire his own appraisers to contest the city's offer, and noted how through eminent domain, taxpayers would be responsible for funding not only the land purchase, but future maintenance and operation of the site.
This story has been updated to reflect that Stowell originally intended to turn the Montopolis Negro School site into single-family homes, not a mixed-use development.