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Ranch property condemned via Internet

Public meeting on eminent domain posted only on state agency’s website

Cookson Beecher, Capital Press  1/12/07

Imagine this.

You're home, and everything seems right with the world.

Then, much to your surprise, you're served with papers informing you that a state agency is using eminent domain to take your property. A price is offered. In so many words, you're told, "We're going to take your property and there's nothing you can do about it."

But this can't be, you say. I was never even notified that my property was under consideration. I never had a chance to offer any input.

Oh, but yes, you did, an agency bureaucrat tells you. We posted a public meeting notice about a project that involves your property on our website. And even though we didn't specifically mention your name, your address or the property's parcel number, the website notice was adequate.

As farfetched as this scenario may sound, it's exactly what happened to Pierce County beef raisers Ken and Barbara Miller, both 68.

In their case, Sound Transit wanted a piece of property in Tacoma for a park-and-ride lot. During the public meeting that had been posted on its website, Sound Transit decided to take the Millers' property.

In a state of utter disbelief, the Millers hired attorneys and started out on a three-year legal nightmare, which so far has cost them $200,000 in attorney fees.

Much to their dismay, last year the state's Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that Sound Transit had given the couple adequate notice.

"While precedent on this subject is sparse," Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote for the majority, "posting on a public website is at least as likely to provide the community with notice as the specifically approved notice given to a newspaper."

Miller said that until this happened to them, her husband had never used the Internet.

According to a Pew Internet & America Life Project survey conducted Feb. 15-April 6, 2006, only 42 percent of American homes have broadband connections.

The Millers live and run cows on 30 acres about a mile from the targeted property.

At one time, they had a lumber remanufacturing mill on the targeted site and produced finished lumber for customers across the nation and even in Australia. They've owned the site for 30 years.

Zoned heavy industrial, the nearly 1 1/4-acre parcel has all the necessary improvements - including almost 500 feet of street access and 300 feet of rail frontage - for a lumber-related or other industrial-type business. It also has a house, which can be used as an office, on it.

"There's no other land in the area we can replace it with," Barbara Miller said.

Originally, Sound Transit had offered the couple $500,000 for the piece, far less than it had offered for another similar piece. After the state Supreme Court decision, it lowered its offer to $240,000.

When the Millers asked the court to reconsider the case, the court denied their request.

Their only hope now is a jury compensation trial in May, which will decide on a fair price for the property. The Millers hope that the price will be high enough for them to be able to pay their legal bills and have some left over.

"This has consumed our lives," Barbara Miller said. "We both have health problems now. We haven't slept well for three years. We had no idea this could happen to us. But now we know it can happen to anyone. They're getting away with it because our Supreme Court is allowing it to happen."

The Millers aren't the only ones dismayed by this turn of events. The outcry has made its way to the top of the state's political ladder. Gov. Chris Gregoire and State Attorney General Rob McKenna have reacted by crafting joint-request legislation.

Under it, a local government considering the acquisition of properties by eminent domain will need to:

n Send a certified letter (costing $4.64) to the property owner of record on the county tax rolls notifying him of the open public meeting called to decide the issue.

n Publish a short newspaper legal notice.

In a press release, McKenna said it's not asking too much to require that a certified letter be sent.

"We shouldn't expect people to click through hundreds of Web pages every week to make sure their property isn't being considered for condemnation," he said.

House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, who will be one of the bill's sponsors, said "it's frightening" to think that what happened to the Millers could happen to anyone.

"Every story I've heard about similar situations is a nightmare," she said.

Cookson Beecher is based in Sedro-Woolley, Wash. Her e-mail address is cbeecher@capitalpress.com.
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