May 7, 2010
Jennifer LindgrenJACKSONVILLE, Fla—Property is more than a piece of land for those who have worked their entire lives to make a comfortable home. What happens when the government says they need it? Lonnie Portwood and his wife have spent decades making a home on Ft. Caroline Road, choosing the once-shady, quiet street for its beauty and seclusion. The view changed, however, when the couple received a notice in 1999 that the road was to be widened as part of the Wonderwood Connector.“Every reason we bought the property, they’re taking away!” Lonnie said.
They were familiar with the government’s right to take a piece of private property for public purpose. But when The Jacksonville Transportation Authority offered the Portwoods an appraisal of $9,100 for 25 feet of their front yard and a temporary construction easement on the side, the couple hesitated.
“The initial offer seemed ridiculously low,” Lonnie said.
JTA held regular meetings in the community, answering questions about the Wonderwood Connector, the 8.5 mile, four lane road designed to speed traffic flow from Merrill Road to Mayport.
“We were trying to minimize the (property) takings. Said, ‘Would it fit better here or here?” said Jim Herndon, who oversees all right-of-way acquisitions for JTA.
According to the Constitution of the State of Florida, when a government takes private property for public use, it must pay fair market value and full compensation; or, whatever damage in value is left to the remaining property.
The Portwoods felt that $9,100 wasn’t enough compensation for the loss of their yard. They expected their home value to drop with the addition of the new road.
“There was no way for us to know what it was going to be like until it was through,” Lonnie said.
The Portwoods hired eminent domain attorney Andrew Brigham, of the firm Brigham Moore.
Brigham’s firm hired their own independent appraisers and countered with a value of $79,900, the same 25 feet of land, but a $70,800 difference.
“If the (homeowner) does not get paid full compensation, then they really have paid more for the public good than anyone else,” Brigham said.
Herndon said appraisal is not a science and that homeowners often counter with higher values. “It’s an opinion. I can not tell you why the homeowner’s appraisal comes in much higher,” he said.
Most of the time, Herndon said, JTA is able to successfully negotiate a settlement with a homeowner outside of court. They also find owners willing to sell.
As Public Works Director for the City of Jacksonville, Joey Duncan said the City tries to meet the challenges of budget and timeline for projects, while minimizing impact to property owners.
“The lawyers make a lot of money. We have to pay for that. A lot of times, it’s beneficial to settle before because both parties don’t have to pay lawyer fees. It just speeds things along,” Duncan said.
“The City is not trying to cheat anyone,” Duncan said.
The Portwoods received a jury award of $107,040 for their property.
When eminent domain cases go to trial, the expenses add up for the government. In Florida, authorities have to pay not only for their own attorney fees and expenses, but for the property owner’s attorney as well.
“We have a system that equips owners; does not give them a blank check,” Brigham said.
Between their own lawyers and the lawyers of the Ft. Caroline neighbors who won favorable settlements, JTA paid over $700,000.
“How many trials do you need for the government to decide what the right thing to do is? My regret is, in the Wonderwood Connector, I think if the cases had been resolved at mediation – and they should have been – about $300,00 to $400,000 could have been saved in the trial.
The Portwoods have taken the money they received and put it back into their landscape, hoping to raise the value of their home. They say they are glad they sought help in their case.
MORE: Brigham Moore Property Owner Handbook
“We didn’t know what we were doing. Didn’t have the information at our disposal to help guide us through that. We made the right decision,” Lonnie said.
Florida has property laws that protect homeowners in the event of a taking.
Finding out if your property is in the path of an upcoming public project is possible by calling the City of Jacksonville at 630-CITY, or stopping by the Planning and Development Office.