John Calhoun was the appraiser for K-Mart, and testified in the trial (Jury awarded all of Calhoun appraisal amount)




The money will pay for part of Kmart’s parking lot at U.S. 19 and State Road 580. More than half of the total is for lost value.

CLEARWATER – By the end of the week, the state government is supposed to  cut a check to Kmart for about $3 million.

For that tidy sum, taxpayers get all of a half-acre of Kmart’s parking lot at U.S. 19 and State Road 580.

No blue-light special, that in fact, officials said it’s one of the biggest awards yet in a condemnation case in Pinellas – and for bean counters, it’s a disturbing sign of spiraling costs as the county tries to turn U.S. 19 into a superhighway.

A jury last month sided with Kmart in a 9-year-old case resulting from the county’s decision to build an overpass at the intersection. The project required a chunk of Kmart’s parking lot, and the government condemned the land in 1986. The overpass was finished last year, to the delight of commuters.

The half-acre itself was worth $230,900 the jury decided. That’s about what the Department of Transportation offered. The trouble is that the state – which pays for road projects on U.S. 19 didn’t believe that taking the land and building the overpass would cut the value of the rest of Kmart’s property.

The jury, however, figured the state owed Kmart about $1.6 million for the __ value. That was about what Kmart asked for. But add in attorney’s fees, the interest since 1986 and the cost of the property itself and the total bill tops $3 million.

In hindsight, it would have been smart for the state to simply cut Kmart a check years ago for what the company asked for, lawyers on both sides say.

“They never offered more than $200,000.” Michael W. Gaines, Kmart’s attorney, said last week. “I had begged them to settle the case.”

Attorneys for the state said they couldn’t justify paying Kmart to settle the case, since their experts told them the land value wasn’t hurt by the overpass.

“We felt we were reasonable,” said William McCraig, the DOT’s lawyer. “But it’s a judgement call. Other appraisers just didn’t see those damages.”

The $3 million bill for a half acre is big, even for land along U.S. 19, officials said.

“It’s enormous,” said County Commissioner Steve Seibert, a member of the county’s road board.

Gaines, who specializes in condemnation cases, said it’s the biggest award he knows of for a piece of land that size. McCraig, the state’s lawyer, couldn’t confirm that, but he couldn’t recall a bigger verdict.

Businesses along U.S. 19 have griped for years that overpasses keep motorists zipping along the highway, rather than stopping off to shop. But county transportation planners have pushed for more overpasses in an effort to unclog U.S. 19 the major north-south artery through Pinellas.

In an attempt at a compromise, the government came up with a system of a side road at overpasses to make sure motorists could get to roadside stores. But businesses have been able to prove that they’re still hurt by losing their direct access to U.S. 19.

Officials at the Kmart in the recent case wouldn’t comment on how their business is doing, referring questions to corporate headquarters in Troy, Mich. A spokeswoman there didn’t return phone calls.

Costs for projects along U.S. 19 have been exploding as a result of business claims. Land for the twin overpasses at Countryside Boulevard and State Road 580 – a 1.5 mile project – cost about $30 million, according to state figures. That was roughly half the total cost of the project, including design and construction.

Alarm bells went off last year when the projected land cost hit $70 million for a 1.3 mile overpass over Sunset Point and NE Coachman roads. In November, the county’s road board decided to plow ahead with the overpass anyway.

Board members decided that there were no better options and that traffic would only get worse if they didn’t move ahead. There are four overpass projects on the books right now, and ultimately the plan is to have no stoplights on U.S. 19 from St. Petersburg to the Pasco County line.

Throw in a few more Kmart type judgments, however, and things could change.

“This could send out some real waves,” Seibert said.

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