Calhoun & Associates was the real estate appraiser for the property owner on this case.

THE TAMPA TRIBUNE

NATION/WORLD

TUESDAY, APRIL 21, 1998

BY STEVE HUETTEL of the Tampa Tribune

TAMPA – The last stand for the Suncoast Parkway costs the state a pretty penny: nearly twice the $4.5 million originally offered.

The state Department of Transportation offered Raymond Agia $4.5 million for his pasture in rural north Hillsborough County.

His own appraisers put the value at $7 million.

Three months after making the offer in January 1997, DOT filed a lawsuit to take the land for the Suncoast Parkway, a 43-mile toll road scheduled to open in 2001.

With a deadline looming to get construction under way, the agency signed an agreement Monday to buy the property from Agia and his partners – the last of 639 parcels running from suburban north Tampa through Hernando County.

The price $8.95 million for 72.5 acres.

DOT will get 51 fewer acres than it originally wanted. And under state law, the agency has to pay the $961,000 bill for Agia’s lawyers.

“They were over a barrel,” said attorney Mike Gaines of Clearwater, who represents Agia, a Tampa eye surgeon. “But it was a barrel they made for themselves.”

Agia says the toll road didn’t have to cut through the middle of his property.

But DOT officials cut a secret deal in 1989 that let developers of the upscale Cheval community pick the highway’s path through their land, he says.

That route aimed the road right through the heart of his 328 acres, across Lutz-Lake Fern Road from Cheval. DOT then convinced Hillsborough County commissioners to reject Agia’s rezoning request to build homes on the land.

“They said, “We’re going to prevent you from developing your land.’ It was illegal, it was wrong,” he says.

Officials with the DOT’s Turnpike District, which is building the $507 million toll road, called the settlement a routine business deal.

When a landowner fights in court, DOT can end up paying two or three times what appraisers estimate property is  worth, says Kevin Thibault, production director for the district that runs Florida’s toll roads.

The district wanted to advertise for bids to build the highway through Agia’s property by May 6, open them June 17 and start work three months later.

DOT could have waited “many months” before delays on that section threatened the Suncoast’s 2001 opening, Thibault says. But each month the road is late will cost $1 million in lost tolls.

“That was only a small consideration in the overall compensation,” he says.

Early environmental studies showed the only logical route through sensitive wetlands was through Agia’s land, Thibault says.

“If Cheval never was a player [selecting the route], the alignment would be just as it is today,” he says.

Agia and his partners bought the pasture land in 1979 for $1.2 million, hoping to cash in as Tampa’s suburbs spread north.

Ten years later, they entered a joint venture with a developer from Florida’s East Coast to build 300 homes.

He knew about vague plans for a highway through the area, then called the North Suncoast Expressway, Agia says, and offered to reserve DOT a corridor on either side of the subdivision.

What he didn’t know – and DOT officials didn’t tell him – was that they already agreed on a path for the highway through Cheval.

DOT had no money for the highway, hadn’t mapped out a formal alignment or held any public hearings.

But the agency fought a rezoning on Agia’s land because it would drive up land costs. An attorney for Cheval even sent a DOT official forms for the agency to file an objection with the county, according to a letter Gaines obtained.

County commissioners turned down the rezoning in 1990, only to have the decision overturned in state court. But by then, the Suncoast gained momentum as DOT officials nailed down its path.

“Who the hell was he going to sell houses to when he had to disclose a highway was going through the property?” Gaines asks.

After failing to strike a deal with Agia and his partners, the turnpike district sued last April in Hillsborough County Circuit Court.

But Gaines filed for DOT documents and deposed current and former agency officials about the Cheval agreement.

The two sides held a second mediation hearing April 9. Gaines and Agia were shocked when Jim Ely, boss of the turnpike district, arrived from Tallahassee and sat through the daylong negotiation.

Agia, whose medical partnership owns seven clinics, had the resources and the will to keep fighting. But Ely convinced him that accepting the offer served the public interest as well as his own, Agia says. “Real estate is booming up there. That property is worth much more than they gave me.”

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