April 10, 1997 in Nation/World

Jury Will Determine Land’s Price Tag City, Taxpayers To Pay Between $45,000 And $2.2 Million

By The Spokesman-Review

Somewhere between $45,000 and $2.2 million lies the price taxpayers likely will pay for a slice of riverfront land just north of Spokane’s downtown library.

A jury will decide how much the land is worth.

Lawyers representing the city of Spokane and the property owner made opening statements Wednesday in the condemnation trial.

Steve and Leslie Ronald planned to build a seven-story condominium complex on the scenic spot, but City Council members voted to condemn the land to save the library’s view of the Spokane Falls.

Buying the 1.34-acre property also is a condition of a settlement the city reached last year with attorney Steve Eugster, who sued to stop the Lincoln Street bridge from being built.

During opening statements, attorneys on both sides trotted out estimates and promised experts who will try to prove the value of the land.

Assistant City Attorney Milt Rowland said the Ronalds struggled to get buyers interested in the $300,000 luxury condominiums, and bankers balked at the costly construction.

Building on the steep slope made from fill dirt posed engineering difficulties the Ronalds didn’t plan for when calculating the project’s $7 million pricetag, Rowland told the jury.

“There’s a $1.3 million cost-overrun that evidence will show Mr. Ronald had not taken into account,” he said.

Rowland said the Ronalds stood to lose at least $200,000 - even if they’d set aside the standard 5 percent “contingency fee” for unforeseen problems.

One appraiser hired by the city will testify that a park would be the land’s best use, Rowland said. Since park land is worth about $1 per square foot, he said the value of the Ronalds’ land is $45,000.

A second city-paid appraiser will testify the land, as a condominium site, is worth about $280,000. That appraiser will argue the market currently can’t sustain the development, but “conditions may improve,” Rowland said.

Attorney Mike Maurer, representing the Ronalds, told jurors their job is to determine the property’s fair market value - not the viability of his clients’ project.

“Just like you are not here voluntarily, Steve and Leslie Ronald are not here voluntarily,” said Maurer. “They are here because the city wants their property.”

The Ronalds “got themselves one heck of a deal” when they bought the property for $125,000 in 1986, Maurer said, adding that a 1970 appraisal put the land’s value at $685,000.

Since buying the property, they’ve spent thousands of dollars planning for the development that would mix condominiums with shops and restaurants, Maurer said.

No one disputes the land has “unusual building conditions,” but renowned engineers will testify the problems were easily conquered, he said.

“Anyone who purchases the property now … would buy this knowing it can be built upon,” Maurer said. “The work has already been done.”

The Ronalds hired an appraiser who will testify the land is worth $2.2 million, Maurer said, adding that a real estate broker and a developer will back up that testimony.

The couple stood to make money on their investment, Maurer said.

“We do not believe the highest and best use for this property is to donate it to Spokane for a park. The highest and best use of this property is for a mixed-use development.”

The trial in Spokane County Superior Court is expected to last through early next week.

The Ronalds’ land has been the subject of court battles for more than two years. In October 1995, the couple filed a $3 million lawsuit against the city in federal court, alleging they repeatedly had been blocked from developing the land because the city wanted to save the view. A few days later, the council agreed to move ahead with condemnation.

In August 1996, a judge threw out the lawsuit, saying it didn’t belong in federal court. The Ronalds refiled in Superior Court. That case hasn’t gone to trial.

, DataTimes

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