A slice of riverfront land just north of the downtown Spokane public library is worth $2.184 million, a Superior Court jury said Thursday.
That’s exactly what Steve and Leslie Ronald wanted for their property - and nearly 50 times the value set by an appraiser hired by the city.
“The jury did what was right,” said Mike Maurer, the Ronalds’ attorney. “The city … has the power to take property. The jury had to decide what is just compensation for that property.”
The price stunned city leaders, who immediately began backing away from the condemnation process started nearly two years ago to preserve the view of the Spokane Falls from the library.
“We don’t have that kind of cash,” said City Manager Bill Pupo.
“It’s more money than we think the property is worth and certainly more money than we have available,” said Mayor Jack Geraghty. “The council has to decide whether to proceed with this condemnation or not.”
The Ronalds planned to build a seven-story condominium complex on the scenic spot, but the City Council voted to condemn the property in 1995. More than a year’s worth of negotiations left them unable to settle on a price.
In March, the city made a last-ditch offer of $875,000 that the Ronalds quickly rejected, leaving a jury to decide how much taxpayers should pay for the land.
During the six-day trial, attorneys for the city and the Ronalds brought in experts to prove why the land was - or wasn’t - valuable.
Milt Rowland, a city attorney, tried to convince jurors the steep site made building difficult and terrifically expensive. Spokane’s market couldn’t support the $300,000-plus condominiums the Ronalds planned to build, he said.
One appraiser hired by the city testified a park would be the land’s best use. At most, the property was worth about $1 a square foot - or $47,000, he said. A second city-paid appraiser testified the land was worth about $282,000.
Rowland repeatedly reminded the jury the Ronalds paid just $125,000 for the property in 1986.
“We’re here to award them just compensation, not a windfall,” Rowland said during closing arguments Wednesday.
Maurer said Wednesday his clients knew they got the land for a “heck of a deal … but there’s nothing wrong with getting a good deal.”
An appraiser hired by the Ronalds compared the land’s value to that of other downtown properties, which sell for $40 to $116 a square foot. He argued the downtown land was worth at least $2.184 million - or $47 a square foot.
Juror Patrick Nowacki said experts for the Ronalds were so convincing, several jurors wanted to go higher than $2.184 million.
“I believe the Ronalds deserve more than what they’ve been given,” he said. “But since they asked for this, that’s what we gave them.”
At least 10 jurors had to agree on a price for a valid verdict - and that’s exactly what occurred. Two jurors disagreed with the decision.
The two assistant city attorneys assigned to the case left the courtroom quickly after the verdict.
“Ten people obviously were persuaded the property was more valuable than we thought it was,” said an ashen-faced Rowland.
Jim Sloane, the city’s chief attorney, said the council has three choices: buy the land, appeal the decision, or walk away.
Buying the 1.34-acre property 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. Eugster wanted the city to preserve open spaces near the bridge.
City officials will have to sit down with Eugster to “determine what is a fair course of action,” Sloane said.
Eugster said he might amend the agreement if the city “is willing to do something which will equal if not exceed the mitigation the Ronald property acquisition represents.”
The Ronalds and the city are scheduled for another courtroom battle in December. The couple is suing the city, claiming officials tried to block development plans for the site.