The city of Spokane settled a controversy at the north end of the planned Lincoln Street bridge this week only to find another brewing on the south.
A Superior Court jury next month is scheduled to decide how much taxpayers should pay Steve and Leslie Ronald for their riverfront land just north of the downtown library.
The Ronalds planned to build a seven-story condominium complex on the 1.34-acre property, but City Council members voted to condemn the land to preserve the library’s view of the Spokane Falls.
Buying the land also is a condition of a settlement the city reached last year with attorney Steve Eugster, who sued to stop the bridge from being built.
City officials on Wednesday offered the Ronalds $875,000 for the land. Two days earlier, council members bought the former Salty’s at the Falls restaurant and surrounding property for $2.78 million.
The widely divergent numbers don’t make sense, said Mike Maurer, the Ronalds’ attorney. He added a recent appraisal of the land the couple bought in 1987 for $120,000 put the value at more than $2.1 million.
“Our property is bigger, has more square feet and has a far superior view (than Salty’s),” Maurer said. “Based upon recent events, (the city’s offer) is not enough. It’s not anywhere near enough.”
“We think that their appraisal is a fine example of sheer advocacy, of wanting to drive up the value of their property,” said Milt Rowland, an assistant city attorney, adding the Salty’s property and the Ronalds’ property aren’t comparable. City officials contend the steepness of the Ronalds’ land makes it nearly unbuildable.
The city paid for two appraisals of the land in 1994. One placed the value at $175,000, the other at $525,000. Appraisers are updating those numbers for the April 7 condemnation trial.
Juries in such trials often “split the baby,” choosing a figure somewhere between the two sides’ appraisals, Rowland said. “Obviously, if the jury agrees with their appraisal, the council would take a look at whether they want the property that badly,” he said.
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, but they refiled in Superior Court. That case hasn’t gone to trial.
Maurer said the planned River Park Square redevelopment and the Salty’s purchase price have made the Ronalds’ land more valuable.
Rowland countered that the Salty’s selling price compensated for possible lost revenues during bridge construction. As for the downtown redevelopment, that hasn’t happened yet, he said.
Most importantly, building on the steep property would be extremely expensive, Rowland said.
Maurer said his clients got a “heck of a deal” when they bought the land 10 years ago and have since spent lots of “time and money proving that it was buildable.”
Unless a settlement is reached, a jury will decide the land’s worth at its “highest and best use.”
Maurer said city attorneys have suggested the council might not buy the land if the price is too steep. “They say, ‘We don’t have the money.”’ Rowland said that decision would be up to the council, adding there’s always the fear of a “runaway jury. Government tends to be seen as a faceless, nameless mass with a capital ‘G’ and a bottomless pocket.”
If the city doesn’t buy the property, taxpayers may face another lawsuit - this time over the agreement with Eugster. His settlement with the city requires it to buy the Ronalds’ land within three years after the bridge is built.
“The price is just going to keep going up,” Eugster said. “That’s going to be a bad move on their part.”
“Nobody here is thinking of breaching an agreement with Eugster,” Rowland said, adding that he still is studying that issue.
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