The Tampa Tribune

MICHAEL FAY Tribune Staff Writer
Published: November 6, 1994
CLEARWATER — To build the overpass at Countryside Boulevard and U.S. Highway 19, transportation planners needed 16,400 square feet from a Ramada Inn parking lot. They paid $2 million.

The Florida Department of Transportation also bought a strip of land from the Plymouth Plaza office building. It was 258 feet long by 40 feet wide and wound up costing $565,000.

Those are just two of the 26 cases listed in DOT records in which the department and property owners couldn’t agree on the price of land needed to build overpasses and frontage roads for U.S. 19’s intersections at Countryside Boulevard and State Road 580.

They underscore a point: Buying right of way on a heavily developed road becomes a costly proposition in a state that places a high value on property rights.

Final judgment figures don’t include the cost of attorneys, appraisers and expert witnesses to defend property owners when the government files a lawsuit to get land it needs for public projects. Under Florida law, the agency that needs the property picks up those tabs.

In the case of the Ramada, add $555,000 to the final bill.

Originally, the DOT offered $131,000 for the Ramada Inn property, which included some of the parking spaces. A lawyer for the Ramada owners wrote DOT a letter saying his clients wanted to settle for $577,000.

Negotiations fell through and the case went to a mediator who gave the owners the $2 million award. A judge later set the amount for their legal fees.

Attorney S. Cary Gaylord, who took over the case from the lawyer who made the $577,000 counteroffer, says the overpasses hurt the Ramada Inn and other businesses.

“If you’re driving through there you go right past all those businesses,” he says.

To rebut the inn’s claim of business damages, DOT pointed to a Ramada Inn in Huntsville, Ala. That hotel suffered no loss of trade after being put on a frontage road similar to the one built on U.S. 19, a DOT expert witness testified.

Right of way staff for the department accuse some attorneys of dragging their feet when making counteroffers in eminent domain cases. Their theory is that the attorneys are playing chicken — making high counteroffers just before a case is scheduled for trial with the hope the DOT will balk at going before a jury or mediator.

On the other hand, the attorneys say the department could settle many cases for much less than what courts award their clients.

In the Plymouth Plaza case, lawyer Marc Sachs offered to settle — including attorney fees — for $300,000.

The transportation department declined. An attorney for the DOT wrote: “Even if the jury returns a verdict for $200,000 or $300,000, that would still be a victory for the department and a lesson for defense counsels that the money will not be given away — they will have to work for it.”

The jury gave the property owner $566,000.

And that didn’t include $269,000 for attorney fees, $38,000 for appraisals and $21,000 for expert witnesses.

Of course, the department sometimes avoids a drubbing when it rejects a property owner’s counteroffer. That happened when a mediator awarded the Sears at Countryside Mall $1.8 million.

Attorneys for the department store had wanted $6.4 million.

(CHART) Transportation needs vs. property rights Buying right of way for transportation projects can become an expensive proposition in an urban area like Pinellas County. A look at some of the condemnation cases associated with the U.S. Highway 19 overpasses at Countryside Boulevard and State Road 580, above, shows how the money can add up. The grantors are the property owners listed on DOT records. The legal costs are in addition to the awards won by property owners. DOT’s Award to Grantor first offer property owner Legal costs Hinely Associates (Ramada Inn) $130,700 $2 million $551,900 Sears $940,000 $1.8 million $409,300 Countryside Village $186,200 $1.7 million $654,700 Shadow West Apts. 173,600 $1.08 million $450,000 Dan Zohar (Main Street shopping plaza) $40,650 $910,000 $515,800

Source: Florida Department of Transportatio <FILED: NOT RETURNED>n Illustration: PHOTO (C) CHART

(C) (U.S. HIGHWAY 19 OVERPASSES AT COUNTRYSIDE BOULEVARD AND STATE ROAD 580) <FILED: U.S. HIGHWAY 19>

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Copyright 1994 The Tribune Co.

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