Condemnation action sidestepped by county

Agreement reached with holdout owner of Oak Street house

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Routt County is closer to acquiring all of the property it needs to build a new court facility in downtown Steamboat Springs. However, the earliest date the voters may be asked to approve a bond issue for the new building is still probably two years away.

The county commissioners announced Tuesday they have reached an agreement to purchase real estate on Oak Street from John D. Wright, eliminating the need to go forward with a judicial hearing on condemnation of the property.

The county has agreed to pay Wright $480,000 for two city lots and a home on Oak Street. Together with the property currently occupied by the Visiting Nurse Association building at the corner of Sixth and Oak, that would give the county enough land to build a two or three-story building that would house a new court facility, just across the street from the Routt County Courthouse annex.

"We've finally gotten the land together we think a great court facility can be built on," Commission Chairman Ben Beall said. He added that the county is negotiating a contract to purchase the VNA building.

The VNA is a willing seller, but that was not the case with Wright, and the county felt compelled to go forward with condemnation proceedings. The county had investigated in prior years the possibility of building on the vacant site of the former Good News Building at Seventh Street and Lincoln Avenue, as well as developing the court facility adjacent to the county jail. Merrill said the county began looking at condemning Wright's property after it became aware of the availability of the VNA property.

Three local residents had been sworn in by District Court Judge Richard Doucette in March to serve as commissioners in a compensation hearing scheduled for Oct. 10. It was to have been a part of the condemnation process.

All three county commissioners said on Tuesday they'd been uncomfortable about condemning Wright's property and were happy not to have to follow through on those plans.

"It got things done in a somewhat more amicable manner," Commissioner Dan Ellison said.

Beall said he hopes Wright is more comfortable with the outcome in light of recent developments.

"Hopefully the landowner perceives that he got a better price I think he did," Beall said.

Wright was not available for comment Tuesday afternoon. However, the final price for his property was $30,000 more than his own appraiser valued the land in the spring of 1999, according to County Attorney John Merrill.

Merrill said Wright's original asking price for the property was $585,000. In March, the two sides were working with appraisals that varied by about $38,000. Lori Elliott had appraised the property at $412,250 on behalf of the county in October 1998, Merrill said. Wright's last appraisal valued the property at $450,000, he added.

The two sides began moving closer together as they prepared for pretrial disclosure leading up to the Oct. 10 hearing.

Merrill said Elliott did a reappraisal and valued the property at $460,000. The change was due to just two real estate sales that served as comparisons in the appraisal process, Merrill said.

Coincidentally, Wright, who was not privy to the county's latest appraisal, contacted the county and said he wanted to settle at $480,000.

Merrill said he could not be certain, but he surmised that Wright's latest appraisal came in at less than $480,000.

Merrill said the county commissioners didn't jump at that number, but concluded that for a variety of reasons, it was an offer worth accepting.

"We had always wanted to make a deal rather than go through he court process," Merrill said. "We spent some time trying to negotiate (the price) down. We wanted it at $460,000."

But Merrill said the projected costs of legal fees needed to take the process through the condemnation hearing provided one incentive to settle. The county was obligated to pay for the costs of the hearing, and had associated with an outside attorney, Leslie Fields of Faegre & Benson, for her expertise in condemnation proceedings.

There also was the fact that Wright would have been entitled to appeal the results of the compensation hearing to a jury trial not likely to take place for another year. That would have pushed the date for building a new court facility back even further, Merrill said.

There also is the fact that Wright's property is particularly valuable to the county because of its close proximity to the existing courthouse. The county considered that had it been forced to build the new court facility at a more remote site, it likely would have borne the substantial expense of adding square footage to move the offices of the district attorney, social services and the probation department to the new building, Merrill said.

County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said Finance Director Dan Strnad has been able to build the money necessary to purchase the Wright property and the VNA property into the county's general fund. If there is sufficient room between the cost of building the new court facility, and the county's cap on the amount it can raise through general obligation bonds, the county will look into the possibility of repaying the general fund through the bond process, Stahoviak added.

To reach Tom Ross call 871-4210 or e-mail tomross@amigo.net

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