Basalt landowner gains edge in fight over condemnation
October 28, 2009
BASALT – Basalt’s plan to build a 1 million-gallon water tank to serve the Southside neighborhood could be significantly more expensive than estimated at a time when the town is pinching pennies.
Pitkin County District Judge James Boyd ruled Monday that the town must post a $640,000 deposit before it can take immediate possession of an easement across private land for a water pipe. The town had offered the property owners $25,000 for the easement.
“This makes the fight 10 times easier,” said Radine Coopersmith, a property owner fighting the town’s condemnation.
Boyd’s decision on the deposit isn’t the final word on how much the town has to pay the landowners. The town can seek a ruling by a three-person valuation committee.
Town Attorney Tom Smith said the government will not agree to pay $640,000 and will likely seek the valuation hearing. Smith said he believed the judge was being cautious in the ruling and set the deposit amount high. He said he doesn’t believe the ruling is indicative of what the valuation committee will determine.
But Boyd’s ruling said he places more stock in the owners’ estimate than the town’s estimate of the easement’s value.
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“The Court finds Owners’ appraisal more accurately addresses the measure of compensation Basalt may have to pay,” Boyd wrote. “Owners’ appraisal is the most credible evidence of the sum which will be sufficient to pay compensation when the amount is determined.”
Basalt wants to build the water tank on the hillside south of Basalt High School. Boyd found there is a definite public need for the project. Southside currently gets its water from tanks on the north side of Highway 82 and the Roaring Fork River. If the pipelines were compromised in some way, Southside would be high and dry.
The town needs to build a new pipeline between the proposed water tank and its existing infrastructure by the high school. To build that pipeline, it needs an easement across a 25-acre vacant parcel owned by Coppersmith and her ex-husband, Richard Downey. The town determined in engineering studies that the route selected for the pipeline was the most direct and economical. It would also cause the least amount of disturbance to the hillside. It rejected other sites for the water tank in favor of a site held by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Coopersmith rejected the town’s offer of $25,000 and represented herself in a court hearing last month on the condemnation. She argued that the town cannot offer funds just to cover the cost of the land needed for the pipeline easement. She claimed that placement of the pipeline affects the entire value of the property, where she believes a luxury single-family home could be built if she obtained approvals from Pitkin County.
Coopersmith’s appraisal estimated the cost of the easement at $68,818 and the damage in value to the remainder of the property at $540,770.
“The key difference between the appraisals is the effect of the easement on the remainder of the property,” Boyd wrote. “The Town’s appraisal did not evaluate the effect.”
Smith said the town will probably not post the required bond to take immediate possession of the property because of the risk involved. If it took possession, it would be required to pay whatever amount is determined by the valuation committee.
If it doesn’t take immediate possession, it can wait to see what value is determined by the committee, then decide if it wants to pay that amount. Smith said the valuation committee will have to be appointed by Boyd, then it must hold hearings to consider evidence presented by the two sides. A ruling could take weeks.
The threat of the project soaring in price by more than $600,000 over the estimate comes at a particularly poor time for Basalt. The town laid off two employees and will save on another halftime position by leaving it unfilled. Remaining town employees will have benefits cut, and they must take mandatory furloughs for six days each during the first half of 2010. The town government is slicing its spending because of plummeting revenues.
The water tank construction comes from a separate, dedicated fund. Nevertheless the potential extra cost will likely force the Town Council to take another look at the project.