Jury Awards Landowner $100,000 In Eminent Domain Case: Springdale AR Morning News, 9/19/06

City offered couple $23,900

By Bob Caudle

A Washington County jury deliberated less than 30 minutes before awarding a Springdale couple $100,000 for land taken by city officials to extend Har-Ber Avenue to Arkansas 112.

The city offered the couple $23,900.

Mike Baker, who lives on Har-Ber Avenue between Jones Road and Arkansas 112, had originally asked city officials for $446,400.

But Washington County Circuit Judge Mark Lindsay, in pretrial motions, granted the city's motions to exclude evidence that changed Baker's strategy.

Lindsay ruled Baker could not introduce into evidence his plans to construct another warehouse on his property before the road split his property. Baker was trying to recover the costs for loss of the warehouse.

Likewise, Lindsay upheld the city's motion to exclude conversations Baker had with Mayor Jerre Van Hoose and Patsy Christie, planning and community development director, regarding the warehouse construction.

In his ruling, Lindsay said a landowner is entitled to show the highest and best use for his land, but Baker was attempting to show an additional warehouse was the "only" use for the land.

"The building wasn't there," Lindsay said. "It's speculation to say it would have been built there."

After the pretrial motions eliminated portions of Baker's case, Baker and his attorney, Jim Evans, then asked for between $135,000 and $150,000 from the 12-woman jury, still maintaining the property had been appraised by the city as residential rather than commercial property.

Baker runs a business from a warehouse on the property called Art Prints Inc. that he started as an eBay venture. The warehouse was built in 2001. The city made the offer for the road in 2003.

Both sides presented "expert" witnesses - appraisers explaining how they arrived at their costs on the land by using comparable land sales.

Baker's appraiser came up with the $150,000 figure. Baker, presenting sales from property comparable to his, came up with the $135,000 price.

But it was construction of a median on the road that drew the most attention from the jury.

Original plans showed a four-lane road going by the Baker's house, with no median. But the city built a concrete, tree- and grass-lined median along the swath of the road past Baker's house.

The road splits Baker's property into a 3.64-acre piece with a house and warehouse and a leaves the Bakers with a 0.89-acre triangle on the other side of Har-Ber Avenue.

To access his small piece of property, Baker has to exit his driveway driving west, turn around and drive east, pull up to a gate in the fence the city built around the property and back into it because the angle will not allow a turn onto the land in a vehicle headed east.

The median incensed Mark Risk, Baker's appraiser from Real Estate Consultants, who teaches real estate classes at the University of Arkansas.

"I can't believe a median was put in that road," Risk told jurors. "Medians are bad for business. You can't get to that piece of property. That median is very detrimental to his property."

Tom Reed of Reed and Associates, said that, when he appraised the land, he looked at prices that property surrounding it had sold for, saying he could find no commercial property nearby.

Land adjacent to the Baker property on the north and south sides sold for $36,000 and $37,000 per acre, Reed told the jury.

"There is no reason for changing it (the Baker appraisal)," Reed said. "Even though it was split, the cost remains at $38,000 per acre (the city's offer)."

Despite the judgment, Baker said the pretrial motions gutted much of his original case.

"I feel, honestly, a little let down," Baker said after the jurors returned with the judgment. "We didn't get to present the whole story to the jury. However, other eminent domain people can see they have a chance. They don't have to take being bullied by the city."

Deputy City Attorney Ernest Cate, who tried to convince the jury the city was offering $23,900 for 0.42 acres, the amount of land covered by the road, said after the judgment that he felt the median played a large role in the jury's decision.

"Let's put it this way, it didn't help," Cate said. "I think they looked at that and found the remaining piece of land was hurt by the median. But that's why juries get to decide these things."

Springdale AR Morning News: http://www.nwaonline.net