Home owners lose out to eminent domain laws: Portland OR State University Daily Vanguard, 1/12/07

After battling to save a house they owned for 30 years, it still came down Thursday

By David Holley

Late Wednesday night, John and Susan Unverferth stood outside a gated fence enclosing the duplex they were forced to turn over to Portland transportation provider TriMet last February.

TriMet tore down the duplex on Southwest Jackson and Sixth Street near PSU - a two-story house built over 100 years ago and owned by the Unverferths for 32 years - on Thursday so that the organization could build a turnabout on the block south of Southwest Jackson (between Southwest Fifth and Sixth avenues) for the new MAX Green Line.

Oregon eminent domain laws allow public entities like TriMet to acquire private property for the use of public development if fair compensation is given. In this case, the Unverferths, who said they adamantly tried to keep the property, were given $425,000 from TriMet when the transportation provider seized the house.

"That valuable piece of property is going to be used as a break room for drivers," John Unverferth said, referring to the duplex. "Is that good use of taxpayer money?"

The Jackson Street block consists of four total lots: one previously owned by the Unverferths, the second by Portland State, the third by property manager Richard Matza, and the final lot by Unitus Community Credit Union.

TriMet is working on similar agreements to acquire property with Mexican cuisine restaurant Cha! Cha! Cha! and Unitus Community Credit Union. Unitus owns a parking lot behind the Unverferth house and two other houses that have already been torn down, and the Cha! Cha! Cha! on the corner of Southwest Sixth and Jackson lies in the path of the new Green Line.

Initially, the Unverferth's house was not going to be touched by the Green Line, but after changes in plans, TriMet decided to include two additional tracks on the turnabout at Southwest Jackson Street right where the Unverferth house was located.

It was what worked best for the project, according to John Baker, the TriMet real property acquisition manager. He said that even though other options were considered, developing the extra tracks, equipment rooms and a break room for operators at the Jackson block is cheapest and most efficient option for taxpayers.

"The bottom line is that it's taxpayers' money," Baker said. "We don't have a huge amount of it, so we try to maximize the way we use it."

TriMet Communications Director Mary Fetsch said TriMet uses the eminent domain laws as a last option. Baker said that TriMet tries to give a higher offer on a plot of land than the fair market price, like the Unverferth duplex, and gets two appraisals before making an offer.

TriMet narrowly avoided going to court with the Unverferths, which Baker said costs the organization around $100,000 each time. TriMet also avoided court cases with each of the other groups involved except for Unitus Credit Union. Baker said TriMet is currently preparing to go to court with Unitus, who owns a 15,557 square foot plot of land that the turnabout will occupy.

Fetsch said that TriMet expects to make an offer to Cha! Cha! Cha!, which just opened another store on Northeast Fremont, within a month and does not expect any complications in the sale. Portland State agreed to take $590,000 for a 4,088 square foot parking lot needed for the Green Line.

The Unverferths were unhappy with the initial offer that TriMet made on their two-story house over a year ago. The offer, $355,000, was $100,000 less than a private appraiser, Jim Lyons, said their house was worth, according to John Unverferth.

After hiring lawyers and spending months looking for ways to keep the house, Unverferth said, the couple and TriMet held a mediation where a $425,000 total was settled upon.

Baker said that TriMet appraised the lots by what is on the land, how many square feet the lot is on, and by how much usage they can get from the lot (such as how high of a building they can build).

Baker said that the $425,000 that TriMet paid for the 1,500 square foot Unverferth lot is of fair market value and equal, if not higher, than TriMet paid for the other Jackson block lots.

Unverferth, who was making about $1,500 a month from of the duplex through rentals, said that the fact that they had invested so much time, care and money into the house, after remodeling it six years ago, makes the situation worse. He said that the issue becomes more than just getting a fair market value.

"They try to force the house into a objective box, when it's such a subjective thing," he said.

TriMet will continue utility relocation in preparation for the Green Line, which will run from Clackamas County though the downtown bus mall to Portland State, until October. Rail construction for the new line that is expected to cost $550 million will begin in June of this year.

Portland OR State University Daily Vanguard: http://www.dailyvanguard.com