Sunday, October 14, 2007

"Most are fighting City Hall, upset about losing their property and insisting their land is worth far more than what is being offered."

Trinity corridor landowners fight Dallas on low offers, condemnations

October 14, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

The city of Dallas is purchasing and condemning land along the Trinity River, with the aim of creating a corridor filled with parkland, a multilane toll road, hiking trails, lakes and wetlands.

But landowners aren't always willing to go along with that plan. Most are fighting City Hall, upset about losing their property and insisting their land is worth far more than what is being offered.

The city has used condemnation procedures on more pieces of property than it has bought outright for the Trinity River Corridor Project, according to a review of information obtained through an open-records request filed by The Dallas Morning News.

So far, the city has purchased 11 properties through eminent domain or condemnation for the project, while five additional pieces of land are in the middle of the condemnation process.

Many of those fights have been long, and several have been bitter. But the record shows that landowners who argue their case wind up getting far more for their land – sometimes dramatically more. In one case, an owner received a final payment more than five times higher than the initial offer.

Setting the price

Real estate specialists for the city say they don't have much leeway on how much they can offer. They must make a "fair-market value" offer based on evaluations provided by independent appraisers.

"We offer the best deal we can to people," said Gladys Bowens, assistant director of the Development Services Department's real estate division.

The city has completed only 12 straightforward land purchases for the project. Two of those cases also started out as condemnation procedures. But the owners wound up accepting the offers and didn't follow through with appeals.

An additional 18 properties remain on the table. But those are in the early environmental assessments and appraisal stages, so the city hasn't made any offers.

The city says it is condemning the properties because they are in the flood plain or near the Great Trinity Forest.

Land for a toll road

Two pieces of property were condemned for the Trinity Parkway, the hotly debated toll road that would be between the Trinity levees.

"We were trying to get ahead of the curve," said Rebecca Dugger, the engineer who heads the city's Trinity River Corridor Project office. She said the decision to go after the two properties came early in the process. But "we don't want to wait until the end. We were expecting to go on."

One of the toll road properties purchased by the city is a 37-acre tract of land at 1301 McDonald Ave. that sits entirely within the 100-year floodway, according to an acquisition fact sheet provided to the Dallas City Council last year.

Dallas' real estate office initiated buying the property in 2002, but pulled back when the council wasn't sure what would happen with the toll road. The condemnation process started again in 2005.

The property owners rejected the city's first offer of $3.85 million and took their case to a special commissioners' panel, which increased the offer to $5.02 million. The deal was accepted and finalized in May.

The second piece of property the city bought for the toll road is at 3131 Stemmons Freeway. The purchase started as a condemnation, but the owners decided to accept the city's $1.11 million offer.

The deal closed in May 2006, leaving the former business plaza sitting empty. Soon, neighbors began complaining about the building's ratty condition, saying it was frequented by squatters, prostitutes and drug dealers. The city knocked down the building this year.

Attainment methods

In all, records show the city has accumulated nearly 1,000 acres, spending roughly $26.6 million on land for the Trinity River Project. Some of the purchases involved owners who died without a will, owed back taxes or filed for bankruptcy. Here are details about a few of the other property cases, according to records:

• The Sleepy Hollow Golf and Country Club: This 265.6-acre property had a private country club with two golf courses. Located upstream from Loop 12 along the Trinity River, the club had a tense relationship with the neighboring community of Joppa.

When the original appraisal for the property in 2001 came in at $2.55 million, owner Charles Remy Taylor objected, saying the land and business were worth far more. Mr. Taylor fought the city's early offers and was awarded a $4.52 million purchase price for the property in Dallas County Court in February.

• 925 Pemberton Hill Road: This 35.7-acre property with a one-story frame house was purchased by the city for $108,000. Initially, this was a condemnation, but the owner accepted the city's offer in 2004.

The site is within the proposed Great Trinity Forest's boundaries. It has a natural spring and a good deal of history to recommend it. It is believed to be the site of the original cabin belonging to Dallas founder John Neely Bryan. Legendary Texas leader Sam Houston is said to have once camped there on his way through the area.

• Ninety acres on Linfield Road, site of the Linfield Landfill, which closed in 1975: Owner Phillip Johnson was offered $144,000 for the property in 2003. He turned it down. A commissioners' hearing was held the next year and increased the award to $287,920. Mr. Johnson objected again and a jury trial was scheduled for April 16 this year. Instead, mediation was scheduled in March. After more than four hours of discussion, the two sides agreed to a purchase price of $795,000.

Alan Johnson, son of the former owner, said the family used a storage facility on the property for woodchips as part of a tree service business. He said losing the property was a financial hardship and the family is still upset they had to sell. "It killed us," he said.

Staff writer Adam Barth contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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