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County takes heat over buying land near air base

On Friday, a U.S Air Force KC-135 tanker, on approach to Fairchild Air Force Base, flies over a new railroad spur adjacent to land purchased by Spokane County.  (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
On Friday, a U.S Air Force KC-135 tanker, on approach to Fairchild Air Force Base, flies over a new railroad spur adjacent to land purchased by Spokane County. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Critics say 150-acre site was overpriced, unneeded

Spokane County commissioners, who faced political fire for their controversial purchase of an auto racetrack, are now defending another land purchase.

The county paid $600,000 in March for 150 acres on the West Plains owned by the son of a longtime political supporter of prominent Republicans, including county Commissioner Todd Mielke. Although county officials acknowledge the purchase price is nearly 10 times the amount the property sold for seven years earlier, they say it helps protect Fairchild Air Force Base from encroachment and boosts economic development by rerouting a rail line.

Critics contend the county paid too much for land it didn’t need.

“There was an agenda here. There was some politics going on,” said Sherm Johnson, a recently retired Spokane County employee who was involved in initial negotiations for the property and agreed to an interview with The Spokesman-Review after questions about the purchase were raised by others.

Mielke and fellow GOP county Commissioner Mark Richard, both facing tough re-election campaigns, dispute any wrongdoing and argue that questions over the land purchase are nothing more than a smear campaign against them as ballots begin arriving in voters’ mailboxes. They note that Democratic county Commissioner Bonnie Mager supported the purchase as well.

“I’m a little concerned about the timing of this,” Mielke said. “Why is it coming two weeks before the election?”

The issue had festered among government insiders for months but became public when Mielke’s opponent, Democratic challenger Dr. Kim Thorburn, raised the issue during a debate. “Why are we making all these real estate purchases at a time our economy is tanking and we will need that money just to run government?” Thorburn asked in an interview this week. “I really feel that those deals happened out of the light of day. And I don’t believe in operating government that way.”

Part of spur project

The purchase is part of a complex deal connected to the West Plains Geiger Spur railway relocation. It was made at a time when the county was already behind schedule to meet state and federal project deadlines to move the rail line off Fairchild property.

The county turned to Johnson, who retired as a right-of-way negotiator this summer after 33 years, to handle the purchase of three parcels necessary to move the rail spur. The state set aside $7 million to support the project, which officials had hoped to complete in 2007.

But the project was delayed as Johnson worked to secure rights-of-way on a 250-acre parcel owned by real estate investor Pete Carstens and the adjacent 150-acre parcel owned by John Condon Jr., whose father was known for holding political fundraisers at his home on Spokane’s South Hill. The elder Condon promoted the campaigns of local Republicans such as Phil Harris, Mielke and Mielke’s former boss, the late Jim West. John Condon Jr. this year contributed $500 each to Mielke’s and Richard’s campaigns.

Negotiations to purchase the five-acre strips needed from each landowner for the rail line eventually broke down, and each sought to have the county purchase their entire parcel. Carstens sold first, agreeing to accept $2.6 million in January for his 250 acres, which gave the county enough land to bypass the Condon parcel and get the Geiger Spur built. Despite its hefty price, the purchase of the Carstens property has been praised by all sides because of its industrial development potential.

But the county continued to pursue the Condon property even though Johnson and others told county engineers it was unnecessary. Among other things, Johnson had discovered that the Air Force held easements on the Condon property that essentially prohibited any development.

“It was so heavily encumbered by easements, you couldn’t have built an outhouse out there without the Air Force’s approval,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Condon opposed selling just the portion of the land that the county wanted because it would have forced him to shut down the rock mine he had developed on the land. The rock mine, in fact, became a sticking point. The county initially appraised the parcel at $180,000 without considering the rock mine.

A second appraisal came in at about $650,000, which Johnson told county officials in a Jan. 18 e-mail was “absolutely ludicrous” because it overvalued the future use of the rock pit.

Johnson informed Condon following the Jan. 24 purchase of the Carstens property that the county no longer needed his land for the rail project.

But he later learned the county bought Condon’s land anyway, for $600,000. His reaction: “Nausea. Disgust. I wasn’t happy about them doing it, because I thought it was political. I don’t see the value there at $600,000. I don’t even know if it was worth $180,000.”

Mielke and Richard defended the Condon purchase and said the state provided funds and the Air Force contributed $250,000 toward the purchase. The fact that it was owned by someone who has contributed to both of their political campaigns had no bearing, they said.

“I think it was the right thing to do for the community. I think we paid a fair price, we followed the law and I don’t control who owns it,” Mielke said.

Mielke acknowledged that he is a personal friend of the Condon family.

The family has additional connections to Mielke and Richard.

Condon’s sister-in-law, Kristin, is an assistant to the clerk of the Spokane County Commission and was hired after Mielke and Richard were elected in 2004.

“I understand the appearances are there,” Mielke said, adding that he was told by a county attorney that he could legally participate in the Condon land deal. “But the law does not allow government to spend more on property than the appraised value,” and the purchase complied fully with that provision, he said.

Mager acknowledges that she supported the deal but said she was concerned about Mielke’s relationship with the Condons.

“He didn’t have to legally remove himself, but I think it would have been the ethical thing to do,” she said.

Mielke said he would have made the purchase if Mager or his Democratic challenger owned the parcel.

“Regardless of what name was on that deed, that piece of property was a problem for the Air Force and it needed to be mitigated,” he said. “And that’s what we did.”

Mining ‘incompatible’

The rock pit posed a potential threat to the base’s future, supporters of the purchase argue.

Although the property contained restrictive easements, the Pentagon recently changed its stance on whether mining operations are considered compatible neighbors to military bases, said Fred Zitterkopf, a retired assistant civil engineer at Fairchild.

During the Pentagon’s most recent base-closure review, the Condon land had been listed for the first time as “incompatible” because of the mine, said Zitterkopf, who is part of the Forward Fairchild advocacy group. The military uses the reviews to help it decide which of the nation’s bases should remain open or be expanded and which to close.

Richard said he was assured everything about the land deal was proper.

“Over the course of the last three years, I have repeatedly gone to (other county officials) because of Kristin’s shirttail relation as an in-law and said, ‘This thing is by the book, this thing is appraised, this thing is squeaky clean or I’m not going to touch it,’ ” Richard said.

Mielke and Richard said Spokane County can’t afford to take any chances with Fairchild, which is one of the region’s largest employers.

“What is the value of 5,000 jobs at Fairchild?” Mielke asked.

Condon got mining permit

John Condon Jr. said he was sympathetic to the base’s need to protect itself from encroachment, but contends he and his partners put a lot of time, effort and money into getting the mining permit approved. He bought the land in 2001 for $65,000 even though it was listed at $150,000.

“We bought it cheap. There had been a lot of illegal dumping, and we spent a lot of time and money cleaning that place up,” he said.

Condon said the improvements made the property far more valuable. Asked if nearly 10 times the amount he paid for it was fair to taxpayers, he replied: “This is America. Does it matter how much we bought it for?”

Condon pointed out that his appraiser estimated the land’s value at $1.2 million.

“Even though we sold it at about half price, we felt it was good for the county,” he said.

Condon wasn’t concerned how the transaction might be perceived given his family’s connection to Mielke.

“I don’t lose much sleep over that,” he said. “I could see people trying to make something out of that. It’s not necessarily the truth. But that’s their right.”

Johnson said he’s skeptical of Condon’s appraisal, particularly since the county agreed – as part of the deal to take the money from the Air Force – to restore the rock mine to its original condition.

County officials this week had no estimate as to how much that would cost.

“How does (Condon) buy it at $65,000 in 2001, and all the sudden it’s worth $1.2 million?” Johnson asked. “It’s asinine.”