Eminent domain bill on track: Tacoma WA News Tribune, 2/1/07

Legislation would require certified letters to targeted property owners

By Sean Cockerham

State lawmakers have fast-tracked eminent domain legislation inspired by a Tacoma couple who are losing land to Sound Transit.

The bill would require public agencies to send a certified letter notifying property owners of any meeting to take action on acquiring their land. It says notice also has to be published in the newspaper.

“It is going to sail through the Senate,” said Sen. Adam Kline, a Democrat from Seattle who chairs the judiciary committee in the state Senate.

Ken and Barbara Miller said no one told them beforehand about the 2003 meeting where the Sound Transit board made its decision to go after some property they owned near South Tacoma Way and South 60th.

Sound Transit advertised the meeting on its Web site. But the couple didn’t see it and said they can’t be expected to constantly check the Web site. The Millers fought, but the state Supreme Court last year sided with Sound Transit, saying the online posting was good enough and the agency wasn’t required to send the Millers an individual notice.

There was a public outcry over the ruling. Now it looks like legislation to give property owners more notice could be among the first measures to pass in the 2007 legislative session.

Senate Bill 5444 passed Kline’s judiciary committee in minutes last week. No one testified against it.

“I don’t believe there is any opposition at all,” Kline said.

Republican Sen. Mike Carrell of Lakewood sponsored the bill at the request of the governor and attorney general.

“I believe this is a case that cries out for the Legislature to act,” Carrell said.

Support is not limited to the state Senate. A companion bill in the House has a hearing on Friday, and 56 state representatives have signed on as co-sponsors. That is a majority of the House, enough to ensure the bill can pass.

House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler is among those sponsors. Kessler said it’s just a basic courtesy to send people a certified letter to let them know they could lose their property.

The Millers have come to Olympia to support the bill.

“I’m sure happy to see some kind of notice,” Ken Miller said this week in an interview. “The period they’re talking about for giving notice – 15 days – isn’t much, but anything is helpful.”

The bill would require that certified letters go out to affected property owners at least 15 days before a meeting on taking their property.

The bill also requires the notice to give a description of the land under consideration, such as an address or lot number. The Web site posting in the Miller case only said the board would discuss acquiring “certain real property interests” necessary for the construction of the Lakewood and South Tacoma commuter rail stations.

The agency wanted the Millers’ land for a Park & Ride lot as part of its effort to extend commuter rail service from Tacoma to Lakewood. Miller said he had two contacts with Sound Transit prior to the meeting that targeted his land. But he said he knew only that it was being considered along with other sites.

Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said the agency did not start the condemnation proceedings on Miller’s land until more than a year later, when negotiations with him over purchase price failed. Miller said Sound Transit came in with a lowball offer and there was no negotiation.

A trial is set for May to sort out how much Sound Transit will now have to pay him for the land.

Patrick said Sound Transit supports the Legislature’s move to require that letters go out to affected property owners. Sound Transit already has started providing such notifications, he said.

This wasn’t the first time the Millers have battled a government agency over their property. The state Department of Transportation in 2004 backed down from an effort to condemn 20 acres of the Millers’ property in University Place. The state wanted to use the land as mitigation for wetlands that will be damaged as part of a project to widen Highway 16, located more than a mile away

Tacoma WA News Tribune: http://www.thenewstribune.com