BY MICHAEL F. YOSHIBA, ESQ.
What happens when a property owner just
won’t take the money
On occasion, public agencies trying to acquire property for public
projects encounter property owners that are less than enamored with
the eminent domain process. One such acquisition took place a few years
ago in Yucaipa, California.
The City was acquiring permanent easements for a road-widening project.
One of the affected property owners was an elderly couple that owned a single-family residential house that they leased for rental income. The City’s project
required a 2,600 square foot permanent easement over a portion of the existing
front yard area. The easement would be used by the City to install a new curb,
gutter, sidewalk and driveway.
The Process Breaks Down
The appraisal of the partial take was
completed, an offer of just compensation
was made for $16,900 and negotiations
began in earnest and with great hope.
However almost immediately, the process
stalled after the property owners insisted on
compensation of no less than $100,000.
With such disparate expectations, the
negotiation process reached an impasse,
and the City proceeded with a Resolution
of Necessity hearing, followed by a
Complaint in Condemnation filing with
the Superior Court. The City’s project
required pre-judgment possession of the
permanent easement area so the City
made the requisite Deposit of Probable
Compensation with Clerk of the Superior
Court. The property owners retained
legal counsel to assist them, and the case
proceeded uneventfully until about 60
days before the trial was scheduled to
begin. An apparent dispute arose between
the property owners and their attorney,
resulting in the attorney withdrawing from
representation and the property owners
electing to represent themselves “in pro
per” going forward.
Even after a lengthy and pointed
discussion with the trial court judge, the
property owners were insistent that they
could and would represent themselves in
the valuation trial proceedings. However,
the property owners had a very apparent
and significant problem. The now-departed
attorney had retained an appraiser for the
property owners to value the part taken,
but the property owners refused to pay the
appraiser for his work (they later conceded
that they thought his valuation opinion
was too low), so the appraiser refused to
voluntarily appear to testify at trial. With
no one to testify on their behalf, what’s a
“pro per” property owner and the court to
do? Over the City’s objections, the court
allowed the property owners to testify
concerning their opinions of value even
though they were not properly designated
as valuation witnesses nor did the City have
an opportunity to depose them concerning
their valuation opinions.