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MCI WorldCom Communications, Inc. v. Metra Commuter Rail Division

March 10, 2003

MCI WORLDCOM COMMUNICATIONS, INC., PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
METRA COMMUTER RAIL DIVISION OF THE REGIONAL TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY, CMC HEARTLAND PARTNERS, AND UNKNOWN OWNERS, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Lake County. No. 00--ED--30 Honorable Henry C. Tonigan III, Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Bowman

Released for publication March 13, 2003.

MCI WORLDCOM COMMUNICATIONS, INC., PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
METRA COMMUTER RAIL DIVISION OF THE REGIONAL TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY, CMC HEARTLAND PARTNERS, AND UNKNOWN OWNERS, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Lake County. No. 00--ED--30 Honorable Henry C. Tonigan III, Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Bowman

Publish

Plaintiff, MCI WorldCom Communications, Inc. (WorldCom), appeals the judgment of the circuit court of Lake County in favor of defendants, METRA Commuter Rail Division of the Regional Transportation Authority (METRA) and CMC Heartland Partners (CMC), denying its petition seeking to condemn METRA-owned property. WorldCom challenges the court's findings and its interpretation of the Telephone Company Act (Act) (220 ILCS 65/4 (West 2000)).

On December 22, 2000, WorldCom filed its complaint seeking to acquire a permanent easement for the construction, operation, and maintenance of an underground fiber optics telecommunications line under a railroad crossing (crossing parcel) intersecting with Osterman Avenue in Deerfield. On January 31, 2001, defendants filed a traverse and moved to dismiss the complaint. After an evidentiary hearing, the court granted the traverse and dismissed the complaint.

The following facts were established at the hearing. The crossing parcel was originally owned by the Chicago Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Company (Milwaukee Road). After Milwaukee Road went bankrupt and its residual assets were transferred to CMC Real Estate Corporation, the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) condemned a portion of Milwaukee Road's assets, including the crossing parcel. CMC Real Estate and the RTA entered into two agreements regarding the crossing parcel. In the stipulation agreement, the RTA acquired the crossing parcel and simultaneously deeded the property to METRA. The second agreement, titled the "Fiber Optics Agreement," granted CMC Real Estate the right to receive two-thirds of the income received by METRA for fiber optic easements. The "Fiber Optics Agreement" further provided that CMC Real Estate would act as METRA's agent in negotiating the fiber optics easement. In 1989, CMC Real Estate transferred its interest in the "Fiber Optics Agreement" to the Chicago Milwaukee Corporation, and Chicago Milwaukee Corporation, in turn, transferred its interest to CMC.

The acquisition of the easement under the crossing parcel was part of a project to connect the WorldCom network with an Ameritech facility in Deerfield. WorldCom claims that the easement is necessary to complete the project. The dispute arose when Donald Wheeler, WorldCom's senior real estate and permit manager, informed Jim Konstantelous of CMC that WorldCom intended to acquire the easement under the crossing parcel. After WorldCom made a final offer of $20,000 and CMC demanded no less than $100,000, the negotiations broke off. Subsequently, WorldCom brought suit to condemn the crossing parcel.

After the hearing, the court determined that METRA owns the crossing parcel in fee simple and that METRA's status as a governmental entity prohibits WorldCom from exercising its power of eminent domain. WorldCom now appeals, asserting that (1) the Act grants WorldCom the power to condemn METRA property, (2) the court erred by finding that METRA owns the property in fee simple, and (3) METRA's actions amount to a violation of the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 (FTA) (47 U.S.C. §253 (2000)). For the following reasons, we affirm the judgment of the court.

As a preliminary matter, when a traverse is filed, the plaintiff has the burden to make a prima facie case demonstrating its authority to condemn property. Lake County Forest Preserve District v. First National Bank of Waukegan, 154 Ill. App. 3d 45, 51 (1987). Defendants' traverse was properly granted and WorldCom's action appropriately dismissed if WorldCom failed to establish its right to condemn. Lake County Forest Preserve District, 154 Ill. App. 3d at 49. Our standard of review for a ruling on a traverse is whether the court's order is against the manifest weight of the evidence. City of Naperville v. Old Second National Bank of Aurora, 327 Ill. App. 3d 734, 739 (2002). The court's order is against the manifest weight of the evidence only if the opposite conclusion is clearly evident. City of Naperville, 327 Ill. App. 3d at 739.

First, WorldCom challenges the court's interpretation of section 4 of the Act as restricting its right of condemnation to private entities. METRA, as a division of the RTA, is "a unit of local government, body politic, political subdivision and municipal corporation." Regional Transportation Authority Act (70 ILCS 3615/1.04 (West 2000)); see also Smith v. Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter R. R. Corp., 210 Ill. App. 3d 223, 228 (1991). WorldCom argues that section 4 grants it the right to condemn railroad property without regard to the railroad company's status as a public entity. We hold otherwise.

A corporation or department of the government can exercise the power of eminent domain only when it has been specifically conferred by legislative enactment, and the law conferring the authority must be strictly construed to protect property owners. Forest Preserve District v. Estes, 222 Ill. App. 3d 167, 175 (1991). " '[A] general grant of the power of eminent domain does not authorize the condemnation of property already devoted to a public use,' and 'where the legislature had intended to confer the power to condemn property already devoted to a public use, it has done so explicitly.' " Medical Center Comm'n v. Powell, 124 Ill. App. 2d 123, 131 (1970), quoting Department of Public Works & Buildings v. Ells, 23 Ill. 2d 619, 620-21 ...


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