Selah dispute over trees' worth leads to eminent domain action: Yakima WA Herald-Republic, 10/20/07

By Erin Snelgrove

For the past three years, Maxine Schreiner has felt like a prisoner in her own home. She can't leave it. She can't find a buyer. And now she has to watch while Yakima County levels her front yard to expand Selah Loop Road.

"It's hard to see your property destroyed when you can do nothing about it," said Schreiner, who's lived at the Selah house for 29 years. "I have my good days and my bad days. It's emotional."

Schreiner and Yakima County are at odds over a 35-foot strip of land in front of Schreiner's house at 1100 Selah Loop Road, which is needed for a $3.25 million expansion project.

Since negotiations have proven unsuccessful, the county started eminent domain proceedings and the case is heading to Yakima County Superior Court on Oct. 30. At the conclusion of the expected three-day trial, a jury will decide what Schreiner will be paid.

Through eminent domain, public agencies are legally allowed to acquire a citizen's private property for public uses, such as railroads, utilities and highways.

"There's not a meeting of the minds," County Engineer Gary Ekstedt said. "There's no way to narrow the gap, so we have to use the legal process."

Schreiner said the county's offer falls in the low five figures, while she's seeking a six-figure settlement. She said the road improvement project will destroy her drain field and irrigation system. It will leave her property cut without a retaining wall, and she'll lose her landscaping, shrubs and fencing.

Just fixing these things will cost $60,000 to $80,000, and the county has not offered to make her whole, she said.

"I want to be compensated for the loss of the value of my property," she said. "If they can't replace it, they're obligated to pay the difference."

The land is at the site of the former Selah Central School, which operated from 1910 to the early 1940s. What remains are pipe-rail fencing, sidewalks and a stand of five sycamore and maple trees that are nearly a century old.

These trees offer privacy and comfort, Schreiner said. Saying goodbye to them will be hard.

"I will miss my trees," she said. "My kids went off to the university and never came back. My trees remain. They are kind of personal for me."

The county and Schreiner do agree her property is essential for the road expansion project, which will widen Selah Loop Road from two to four lanes between Goodlander Road and Gore Road.

It also calls for a roundabout at the juncture of Gore Road and Selah Loop Road, and a traffic signal at the intersection of Selah Loop Road and Goodlander Road. The roadwork will also include curbs, gutters and sidewalks.

Due to the county's dispute with Schreiner, Ekstedt said, the project is experiencing "significant delays" - an assertion Schreiner's attorney, Jamie Carmody, categorically denies.

He said his client doesn't want to go to trial but has no choice because county officials have neither responded to her proposals nor have been willing to sit down and talk with her.

"It's patently false that she has delayed or caused any delay in this project. It's unconscionable for the county to even suggest that," Carmody said.

"I didn't cause this," Schreiner added. "I don't want to be blamed for something I didn't do."

The county has already acquired 43 right-of-way parcels, including five houses. Three of the houses will be demolished in the next few months, while the other two will be sold after the road expansion concludes.

After the verdict, Ekstedt said, he plans to advertise for bids and begin the work in February or March. He estimates the project will be finished by next October.

He said the county instigates eminent domain proceedings in an average of one out of every 200 cases. It was not required for any of the other property obtained for this road expansion.

Yakima WA Herald-Republic: http://www.yakima-herald.com