8/10/2006

Eminent domain wasn't intended to burn bridges: Scripps News (Washington DC), 8/8/06

By Peter Callaghan

Sound Transit insisted all the way to the Washington state Supreme Court that posting an agenda four clicks deep into a government Web page is adequate notice of an eminent domain action.

No phone call. No letter. No posting on the property. The law requires notice, but unnoticeable notice such as a Web posting was legally adequate, Sound Transit's lawyers insisted.

And the court bought it.

But now that the agency has won, and now that the court has set a goofy precedent, Sound Transit seems to be trying to improve its practices.

Property owners now get a letter telling them the time and place of the board meeting if the condemnation of their property will be talked about.

The chances of dissuading the board are slim. Voting no is often equated with wanting to slow a project down. Still, a personal letter equals real notice, and Sound Transit deserves a back pat for improving the process.

But better doesn't equal good. Take the case of Paul Tegantvoort, who received such a letter in June.

He runs a wholesale auto parts business near the planned Sounder platform in South Tacoma. Tegantvoort had already lost part of his property for the project, being paid $65,000 for property he bought in 1990 for $50,000.

It wasn't enough, he thought. But he lost in court and decided to walk away from the fight. Rather than grow his business in Tacoma, he'll do it in Auburn instead.

"They just wore me out," Tegantvoort said of Sound Transit.

But the June letter left him with a feeling of here-we-go-again. It said Sound Transit wanted more; this time land he uses for parking. Before the board meeting, Tegantvoort got a small bit of good news; the agency wasn't seeking to buy his property outright, just an easement to use it during construction.

But even that would disrupt his business. So he went to the board meeting to testify.

He wasn't allowed to.

When the meeting reached the public comment section, Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, the board chairman, said no one had signed up to testify. He then moved on to the next item.

Signed up? Tegantvoort hadn't seen a sign-in sheet. He waved his arm from the back, hoping to get Ladenburg's attention. When that didn't work, he approached a staff member sitting on the end of the board's meeting table.

He'd like to speak, he said.

Sorry, she told him. He hadn't signed the sign-in sheet, so he couldn't address the Sound Transit board.

Tegantvoort left before the board voted unanimously to use his property during construction. Soon after, an agent offered him $500 for using his property for two months.

He countered with $30,000; not because he thinks it is worth that much and not because he expects to prevail, but because he is fed up.

"I said, 'I'll never sign that,'" he said of the $500 offer. "I said, 'I don't like you guys. You have an adversarial relationship with me forever.'"

Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said the agency needs the property access while it builds the Sounder rail extension to Lakewood.

But he also said the agency regrets that Tegantvoort was not allowed to speak. It's changing procedures to try to make sure this doesn't happen again.

"I would view this as a significant lapse in our process," Patrick said. "He has a very valid concern."

From now on, the sign-in sheet will be easier to find. And announcements will be made at the start of meetings to alert attendees of the sign-in process.

"Public comment is important to the board," Patrick said. "We want to make sure our procedures fit with that."

Tegantvoort was pleased that Sound Transit seems to be hearing the message that it needs to treat property owners better. But that hasn't changed his feelings about the agency.

"I'm still not going to help them," he said.


Scripps News (Washington DC): http://www.scrippsnews.com