10/31/2005

D.C. Seizes 16 Owners' Property for Stadium: Washington (DC) Post, 10/26/05

As Negotiations With City Continue, Tenants Given Three Months to Vacate Land in Southeast

By David Nakamura

The District government filed court papers yesterday to seize $84 million worth of property from 16 owners in Southeast, giving them 90 days to leave and make way for a baseball stadium.

By invoking eminent domain, city officials said last week, they hope to keep construction of the Washington Nationals' ballpark on schedule to open in March 2008. The city exercised its "quick take" authority, in which it takes immediate control of the titles to the properties.

Under law, the property owners and their tenants must vacate the land within three months unless a judge declares the seizure unconstitutional.

In papers filed in D.C. Superior Court, city attorneys said: "The Properties subject of this action . . . are taken for an authorized municipal use, namely the construction and operation of a publicly owned baseball stadium complex."

A spokeswoman from the D.C. attorney general's office did not respond to a message left for her yesterday evening.

In all, 23 property owners control 14 acres at the stadium site near South Capitol Street and the Navy Yard along the Anacostia River.

City officials said they have agreed to buy land from seven owners, who were not named in the court filing. The city had offered them a total of $13 million, but it is not known whether that was the final sale price.

The other 16 property owners have not agreed to sell, and their holdings include some of the largest and most expensive properties: an asphalt plant, a trash transfer station and adult-oriented businesses.

Negotiations are continuing, city officials said. But M. Roy Goldberg, an attorney for Eastern Trans-Waste, the trash transfer station that the city valued at $8.7 million, said yesterday that the company intends to fight.

The company's owners have told the city their property is worth $14.3 million, plus $18 million if they cannot find another site.

"We're going to fight the amount of the taking and the way they've gone about doing it," Goldberg said. "I don't think they've been negotiating in good faith since Day One."

The city deposited the $84 million in a court-monitored trust. Property owners have 20 days to challenge the constitutionality of the takeover. As long as the District can show that the land was taken for a legitimate public purpose, the court probably will have no objections, land-use lawyers said.

Some activists have argued that the stadium is a private project for Major League Baseball, but District leaders say the $535 million project will create significant tax revenue. Developers have snatched up land just outside the stadium plot in anticipation of a waterfront revival, and the city is planning to create a "ballpark district" featuring restaurants and retail.

If the court does not block the city's action, property owners can continue to negotiate with the city, but in lieu of an agreement, a jury would ultimately decide the sale prices. But that could happen months, even years, after the owners are forced to leave, land-use lawyers said.

The city's offers for the land are about 2 1/2 times as high as the amounts that it had assessed the properties to be worth for tax purposes last year. But some owners said they want more money because owners of property just outside the stadium land have received higher offers from developers.

Patricia Ghiglino, who owns an art studio assessed by the city at $1.7 million, said yesterday that she is meeting with city officials Nov. 14 to discuss the offer. She said she has hired an appraiser to conduct an independent analysis of how much money her property is worth.

"I don't know if the city will want to avoid litigation and just come up clean," Ghiglino said. "But if they decide they don't want to agree with our appraiser, then I guess I don't have too much recourse" but to let the court decide.

Ghiglino, who has been in her property 15 years, said she felt strange that the city now controls the title to her land.

"I've cried so many days since this first came up" last year, she said. "It was very, very personal to me. We created the center. I worked 60 to 90 hours a week here, on Saturdays and Sundays. This became not just a business but also my home. . . . At end, this just becomes a business issue. I have to look for ways that are best for me personally. But we will continue the center regardless of where we go. That's our mission."


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