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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

Politics

Shannon Bream

Washington, DC

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They Can Take it Away, But Will They Pay?

March 1, 2010 - 4:22 PM | by: Shannon Bream

The barren, rocky lot down an Alexandria, Virginia, alley doesn’t look like much, but it’s worth millions. Charlie Hooff’s family owned the land for more than 40 years before the government decided to take it by eminent domain in order to expand operations for the Alexandria Sanitation Authority (ASA). Hooff had negotiated with the ASA years before, but when the parties couldn’t reach a deal, Hooff decided to take it onto the open market. He says he had an offer in the neighborhood of $48 million, which evaporated once the government announced it would take the land. The ASA wound up offering Hooff $20.4 million, but he’s refusing to accept that as final. “They are absolutely convinced they are going to steal this property,” Hooff says, adding, “It’s just not going to happen.” Hooff points to the $48 million offer, along with appraisals he’s contracted which he says put the value in the range of $44 to $51 million.

The ASA maintains it negotiated in good faith and that it followed state law by hiring an independent, professional real estate appraiser who set the $20.4 million price tag. The agency adds, “As a responsible steward of public funds, ASA has not agreed to pay more than the appraised value of the property.” Although the ASA now owns the land, the battle over how much it will pay for the parcel is far from over. Hooff is waging a legal battle in the Virginia court system, but concedes even a win won’t give him everything he thinks the land is worth. “The process is flawed from the very get go because even in the best of circumstances the landowner never really gets his full measure,” according to Hooff.

In Virginia, property owners already start at a disadvantage because their attorneys’ fees aren’t covered. Real estate lawyer Paul Terpak says that discourages most landowners from fighting back. “The toughest case is a relatively small taking from a regular person,” according to Terpak. He gives the example of a government project that knocks down a tree someone’s grandfather planted in their front yard. “How much can those people fight over a $30,000 issue,” Terpak asks. He adds, “Can they pay $10,000 for an appraisal when they’re in a very tough situation?” Terpak also notes that the tough economic climate can make government entities more aggressive than they might otherwise be because they are “more driven by budgets than by fairness.”

One bright spot for Virginia landowners who decide to go to court: their juries must be made up of property owners. Terpak says, in his experience, landowners tend to find a sympathetic audience in the courtroom, and often feel vindicated by the final compromises reached there. Hooff plans to make the most of his May trial, saying, “I’ve been fighting with this city for all of my life, and they’re my most favorite enemy.”

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