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Published March 24. 2014 05:00PM

Most of us enjoy a good underdog story, and we're not just talking March Madness and the NCAA basketball tournament.

When the underdog is 91 years old, and she's up against city officials and big time developers, it's a nice story.

Sixty-eight years ago, Georgia Bell and her husband bought an 840-square-foot home near the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence. Bell recently received a visit from city developers to discuss selling the home to a Chicago developer who was building a residential and retail complex with 156 student housing units.

Bell, a widow with 17 parakeets, took a stand. She told a reporter they made her feel like she really doesn't matter. The city officials and the developer relented, saying Bell could stay and that they would not use eminent domain, the right for government to take private property to allow economic development. Instead the plan was changed to build the complex in a U-shaped pattern, around Bell's "ramshackle house."

Being somewhat isolated, Bell still hasn't ruled out accepting a lucrative buyout. She only weighs 98 pounds and said it might be nice to eat better meals to get "a little fleshier," get her teeth fixed and maybe buy a new car.

Given what happened in Centralia, people in coal mine towns are especially sensitive to the application of eminent domain. Most of the homes, which were condemned because of the a coal mine fire burning underground, were razed in the 1980s and more than 1,000 people fled by the end of the decade. The few homes left standing were because a handful of families refused to move.

Last year, after a 20-year battle, the eight Centralia residents won their lawsuit against state officials who had been trying to evict them from the only homes left standing. They can remain in their homes for the rest of their lives.

A couple in Colorado, Andy and Ceil Barrie, were not as fortunate in their face-off with county government. This case is unique because instead of using the seizure of private property to promote economic development, the county is using eminent domain to preserve open space.

Officials say had to act after the Barries insisted on being able to use their ATVs to travel a 1.2-mile old mining road to get to their century-old dream cabin. The U S. Forest Service told the Barries they couldn't use a motorized vehicle on the road to access their 10 acres.

The Barries said they had been trying to give some of the land to conservation groups and would demolish the cabin if needed and use a tent just to enjoy their scenic property.

In Centralia, the few remaining residents just wanted to be free to live out their lives in their own homes. In Colorado, the Barrie family just wanted to enjoy the land.

In both cases, they just want to be left alone.

By Jim Zbick

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