For some owners, eminent domain strikes twice


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
400 West 7th
Fort Worth, Texas 76102
817-390-7400 (Editorial Editor Jim Piper: 817-390-7753)
Fax: 817-390-7688
To submit a Letter to the Editor: [email protected]
Fort Worth, Texas - For a few owners, the Trinity River Vision project is not the first time they have had to give up property for public use.

At least four property owners have been uprooted by previous eminent domain cases. None has anything good to say about the process.

L'Air International moved to North Main Street from Northeast 28th Street because of flooding problems. Owner Kenneth Snipes said it was a legitimate use of eminent domain.

Even at that, he called the payments "absurd" and "no way covers your costs," he said.

Jim Vreeland, owner of Vreeland Construction, bought land on Vickery Boulevard for his business, but in 1999 he got a letter saying the land would be bought for the proposed Southwest Parkway. He never set up shop on Vickery Boulevard. Instead, he moved to Arthur Street.

The Southwest Parkway still hasn't been built.

Jim Pierce, owner of Pierce Riverside Glass, moved to North Main Street from East First Street in 1998 because of pollution caused by a nearby gas station. He would like to stay where he is and says it would be difficult to move his commercial glass business for the river project.

"I was hoping it would go away, but I don't think it will," Pierce said.

For Binswanger Glass, its White Settlement Road location is its second Tarrant County property affected by an eminent domain issue. The company's Arlington site is in the process of being demolished to make room for a parking lot for a new county court building.

Gary Magnusson, area manager, says Tarrant County has promised to pay the glass-making company a fair price for its Arlington property. However, Binswanger is still waiting to be reimbursed, he says.
Copyright 2005, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Related reading:

'NOT FOR SALE' - Many whose land or business is in the Trinity Uptown project area may defy efforts to make them leave
(Note: The point is that such flagrant steamrollering of eminent domain is unconstitutional. Those at the controls of the steamroller know this. So do the 'city fathers,' lawyers, etc. Such things are moneymakers and powermakers for them as they court the favors of upscale development and, with malice aforethought, run the little businesses and homeowners out, thereby creating failed businesses, homelessness and other very real tragedy.)
July 25, 2005

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
400 West 7th
Fort Worth, Texas 76102
817-390-7400 (Editorial Editor Jim Piper: 817-390-7753)
Fax: 817-390-7688
To submit a Letter to the Editor: [email protected]

Fort Worth, Texas - Some look at the area near the north end of downtown and see blight: Amid the few restaurants and office buildings are empty lots, piles of wrecked cars and stacks of 18-wheeler shipping containers.
But for Sandra Laxson, who with her family runs Buck's Wheel and Equipment on Commercial Street, the area is home to the school bus parts and tractor-trailer repair business that her grandfather started 54 years ago.
Just down the street on White Settlement Road is Omaha Surplus, a store that draws tourists from the Far East and sells offbeat military-related items, such as a Korean War-era M-9 gas mask and a 1969 Army jungle operations manual.
And on North Main Street sits Texas Refinery Corporation, which employs more than 100 workers, sells waterproof sealants, oil lubricants and industrial cleaners by the gallon.
Business owners and many other property owners in the area say they may band together to fight what could become one of the nation's largest condemnation cases involving business properties.
They may be unable to stop the $435 million project, but they may be able to tie it up in court for several years as they try to keep their land.
Trinity Uptown is being sold as a flood-control project that will also economically revitalize the area. It will require uprooting about 80 businesses, a process that could begin as soon as October, when the project is expected to gain final approval.
"This part of the city needs to be revitalized," said Gabor Sztamenits, who owns GAS International, a telephone equipment business on Henderson Street.
But to many property owners, the auto salvage yards and car repair and industrial shops that dominate the area represent family tradition and pride. Some businesses are run by second- and third-generation owners.
"We're just family-owned and very proud of it. We've been in this same location the whole time," Laxson said.
Most property owners say they have not begun looking for places to move.
"We haven't even discussed it," Laxson said.
The owners say their primary concern is fair treatment. They believe local leaders have not shown an understanding of their needs or an appreciation for the jobs and taxes their businesses contribute to the city.
The area's businesses employ hundreds of workers. And according to county records, the owners paid more than $1.6 million in property and business personal property taxes in 2004.
The property owners, however, have few legal options.
Government has the right to take property for flood control and for economic development. There are rules meant to ensure that property owners are treated fairly, but that doesn't mean they won't have to move.
Some remain defiant.
"When I see water rising, that's when we'll move," said Mark Smith, manager of Greenleaf Wholesale Florist on Greenleaf Street.

Goals disputed

Many business owners contend that the project has little to do with flood control and a lot of do with redeveloping the area north of downtown, and that belief is fueling their anger.
Project backers plan a 1 1/2-mile bypass channel that will create valuable riverfront property. The project will also allow existing levees to come down.
Local leaders had opposed a $9.1 million flood-control alternative designed by the Army Corps of Engineers because it would have raised the height of the levees, which they say isolates the river from the community.
Property owners say they are being pushed aside for the proposed vision of multilevel apartment complexes, office towers and eateries along the new channel and a 33-acre town lake.
But the project's genesis was flood control, said Jim Oliver, general manager of the Tarrant Regional Water District, which is responsible for flood control along the Trinity in Fort Worth and which will acquire the land needed for the project.
"All of the land we are buying, we can show it's for flood-control improvements," Oliver said.
Even if the goal were economic development, the Water District has no legal impediment to using its powers to acquire the property.
Governments can use eminent domain to take property for projects deemed necessary for the public good, provided the owner is justly compensated. Typically, governments use that power to acquire residential property for such things as roads and parks, but the Supreme Court recently ruled that it can be used solely for economic development.
Texas lawmakers have considered a constitutional amendment that would prevent municipalities from using eminent domain solely to benefit private developers, but Oliver said the Trinity River project would have fit all of the exemptions in the amendment.
"Obviously this project has huge economic development spinoffs, but this project began primarily as a flood-control project," Oliver said. "I think we will be OK."
Most of the 175 acres the Water District plans to acquire are for the bypass channel, the lake and three bridges, he said.
But the Water District also needs some of the land to hold dirt dug up to create the bypass channel. When the work is complete, the district will own a 300-foot strip of land 1 1/2 miles long on the channel's east side.
That strip, about 54 acres, is likely to be prime property for development with riverfront views.
Oliver said the district has not decided whether it will give the displaced businesses the option of repurchasing that land.
That's one reason some property owners say the Water District's intent to take their property is an abuse of eminent domain.
"My property is not for sale," said Terry Shekell, owner of Automatic Transmission Works on White Settlement Road. "I started my business here, and people find us here. I've worked my whole life to get here. It's not right."
With support from the federal government, though, the project seems to be going full steam ahead, and the Water District says it will move quickly in buying the land.
The district said it has set aside $80 million for property and business relocation expenses. The Tarrant Appraisal District values the properties at $31.7 million for taxing purposes. But the district said it will not use county appraisal values for the project.
Property owners are then left with only two options: accept a buyout offer, or seek more compensation in court.
Several property owners say their businesses already have been disrupted by planning for the Trinity Uptown project.
"The natural course of business is being choked," said Kenneth Snipes, who with his wife, Serena, own L'Air International, a flooring company on North Main Street. "I do lose sleep. I'm appalled at the entire thing."

Moving pains

Some businesses and landowners are waiting to see if the project gets final approval. Only a few have said they've taken even a cursory look for property elsewhere.
David Pearce is the exception. After hearing about the project, Pearce says he found a site three miles away for his office furniture store. Pearce isn't even waiting to be reimbursed for moving expenses. "We're not going to mess around," he said.
Once 80 property owners hit the market looking for land, they expect price inflation. Some are hoping the city of Fort Worth will step forward and offer tax incentives and abatements to keep the businesses here, or even possibly to trade city property for theirs.
Rick Bradshaw, co-owner of the Auto Plaza on White Settlement, says his company can't afford the repair shops he's seen listed on the market for as much as $600,000.
"We still have an SBA [Small Business Administration loan] on this place, so if they buy us out, we'll be starting from nothing,"
Bradshaw said.
But it is the eminent domain process that several owners say has them worried they will not get fair market value offers for their property.
"I'm afraid they'll hide behind the federal statutes and not treat the property owners fairly," said Brad Williams, owner of Omaha Surplus.
City officials may give property owners some incentives to keep them in Fort Worth, said Tom Higgins, the city's economic development director.
"We would not want anyone to have to leave," said Higgins, adding that the City Council may vote on proposed incentives in the next two months.
The Water District has hired Pinnacle Group, a real estate relocation firm, to help the property owners find new sites and to facilitate their moves.
But the first consideration for many business owners is how they will be compensated for their property, whether it is through negotiations or by going to court.
"We need to concentrate on getting as much as we can," said Rick Phemister, owner of Accurate Engine Service, which has been on Arthur Street for 16 years.
If American Auto Salvage's 7 acres on Henderson Street are taken, owner Barry Ruben says he hopes the Water District will "take into account the emotional attachment" when making him an offer.
The business was started 70 years ago by Ruben's grandfather, and he knows it will not be easy to move a salvage yard.
Lisa Harrison, president of Pinnacle Group, said many owners get confused about the acquisition process. Some mistakenly believe that the Water District will also be buying their businesses, she said.
"We're not buying the business. We are relocating the business," Harrison said. "That's part of the concern."
In some cases, the Water District will only need a small part of the property. Oliver said it will only buy what is necessary unless the owner wants to sell the whole tract.
Businesses will have 90 days to relocate after the sale of their property, but that, too, may be negotiated. The sheer size of some of the businesses will make that a tough deadline.
Besides being paid for the property, federal law provides that business owners will have all their "reasonable and necessary" moving costs paid, which could include costs to upgrade equipment at the new location.
They will also be given $10,000 to help re-establish the business, for such expenses as sending change of address cards to clients and getting phone lines hooked up.
Those provisions may not be enough to keep some businesses alive, said Glenn Sodd, a Corsicana lawyer hired by some business owners who have formed a group called the PO'ED Coalition.
Sodd, who specializes in eminent domain cases and is also working with land [property] owners affected by the new Cowboys stadium in Arlington, says he is concerned that as many as half the businesses will either close up shop rather than move, or fail in a new location.
In many cases, business owners say they expect to pay thousands of dollars out of their own pockets to keep their relocated businesses afloat.
Kirk Brumley, who owns Brumley Printing on North Main Street, is also concerned that with its multimillion-dollar press equipment, it may be too expensive to move his business even though the project pays for moving costs.
Nick Cojocaru, owner of International Auto Service, said he is willing to sell the 20-30 feet needed for road improvements to White Settlement Road. But he said he doesn't want to sell his entire site unless the price is right.
"If they gave me half a million, I'd probably go retire," Cojocaru said. "But they'll probably give me peanuts."

In the know - The eminent domain process

* Independent appraisers, hired by the Tarrant Regional Water District or Pinnacle Group, will inspect properties to determine value.
* A second independent appraiser will review the first appraiser's work; all appraisals will be reviewed for consistency and fairness.
* The Water District will make an offer.
* Owners can hire an appraiser and present supporting materials to make a counteroffer.
* If both sides agree on a price, the transaction can go through.
* If not, the Water District can begin the eminent domain process laid out by federal law. If successful, a court authorizes the purchase and determines the price.

If you go

Public meetings are planned this week to discuss the Trinity River Vision project at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday at the YWCA Downtown, 512 West Fourth Street, Fort Worth, Texas.
Copyright 2005, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.