Jurors justified in eminent domain verdict, plaintiff says: South Coast Standard-Times, New Bedford MA, 5/11/07

By Brian Boyd

The plaintiff in an eminent domain case Thursday filed a written response in federal court to the town's [Wareham MA] attempt to reduce the $1.1 million it owes.

Lawyers for property owner Barbara Deighton Haupt assert a U.S. District Court jury was justified in awarding more money for land the town took in 2003 to expand Swifts Beach.

The town has a difficult standard to meet in order to have the verdict set aside, and it fails to meet that standard, said Jeffrey Angley, Mrs. Haupt's attorney, in an interview.

"There was more than sufficient evidence to support the jury's finding," Mr. Angley said.

Now it's up to Judge Rya Zobel, who presided over the five-day trial, to either make a decision based on the written submissions or schedule a hearing, he said.

The town's lawyer, Richard Bowen, could not be reached for comment.

Jurors said on April 18 the 5.35 acres were worth $1.55 million, while the town had paid Mrs. Haupt $450,000. The town's attorneys later field a motion asking Judge Zobel to reduce the amount or grant a new trial, arguing there was no basis for the dollar figure jurors chose.

Since the amount was unfounded, the town's lawyers wrote, "it is clear that the jury was confused or misled by the evidence before it when making its award."

Selectmen Chairwoman Brenda Eckstrom said it's premature to say how the town will proceed.

Selectmen have not yet received information on Mrs. Haupt's response, nor have they made any decisions on how to pay for the verdict, since it's not final, Mrs. Eckstrom said.

"It's not in our best interest to even decide how to pay until we know what we're paying for," she said.

Mr. Angley said the town owes $108,502 in interest on the amount, accrued between the land taking and the verdict, in addition to the $1.1 million balance.

During the trial, the town argued the land was worth $730,500, assuming a duplex could be built there, based on a reappraisal.

Mrs. Haupt's legal team presented different potential values, ranging from $3.1 million, based on the assumption that a beach club with building could be constructed there, to $1.2 million if the best prospect was for a duplex.

The jurors decided the greatest potential was for a duplex with beachfront and assigned a value. In their motion to alter the verdict, the town's lawyers asked the judge to shave $350,000 off the verdict, bringing it down to the $1.2 million figure given by Mrs. Haupt's expert.

In Thursday's response, Mrs. Haupt's lawyers said the jurors used an approach consistent with the town's own appraiser — dividing the land into a buildable lot and conservation land — but opted for different values on the two sections.

"The jury was certainly free to attribute its own value to this use and there was a wide range of values to choose from," they said in the response.

South Coast Standard-Times, New Bedford MA: http://www.southcoasttoday.com