Eminent domain battle not cheap: Ocala FL Star-Banner, 10/4/07

Marion must pay legal bill, law says

By Christopher Curry

Marion County [FL] finally put a 2004 eminent domain case to bed this week, and it did not come cheap.

On Tuesday, the Marion County Commission agreed to pay almost $125,000 to cover a property owner's attorney fees and costs for legal experts in an eminent domain case that went to appeals court and then back to circuit court before it was settled in February.

By comparison, the county's purchase price was $275,000 for the property the case revolved around - a temporary construction easement and 2,000 square feet of right of way in front of Mike's Car Wash, 4845 S.E. 110th St., near Belleview.

In the summer of 2004, the county started to acquire property along Southeast 110th Street for a road widening project.

The County Commission vote Tuesday approved about $86,500 for Mike McMurrer's attorney, Joseph Hanratty, and almost $38,000 for experts hired during the legal battle.

"They're probably on the high side," Chief Assistant County Attorney Tom MacNamara said of the costs during Tuesday's meeting.

But they could have been higher. The original request was for $160,000. By Florida law, the county has to cover a property owner's attorneys' fees and costs in an eminent domain case, according to Marion's contracted eminent domain lawyer, Jim Spalla, with the Tallahassee firm of Akerman Senterfitt.

The amount approved Tuesday does not include the money Marion paid Spalla to battle the case. That figure was not available Wednesday from the County Attorney's Office.

In a memo to commissioners, Spalla described the lawsuit as "hotly contested."

Commissioner Jim Payton apparently is still hot under the collar about it. He voted against the requested attorney's fees.

"What that really is, is legal manipulation," Payton said during Tuesday's meeting. "You could try a death penalty case for $83,000. I think we should make him sue us for it - just sue him to death."

Commissioner Andy Kesselring said the tab for attorney's fees showed the county should work to settle these cases quickly.

"I'd rather give the money to the property owner and settle up front," he said.

Neither McMurrer nor Hanratty could be reached for comment Wednesday.

The 5th District Court of Appeal's ruling did not touch on the county's authority to exercise eminent domain. Instead, the appeals court sent the case back to circuit court on a procedural issue because the county took 25 days to deposit purchase money in McMurrer's account, when it legally had to be done within 20 days.

The case then started over and the county settled in February to avoid potentially going back to appeals court and incurring more costs, MacNamara wrote in a memo to commissioners.

Ocala FL Star-Banner: http://www.ocala.com