Sonoma County Settles Eminent Domain Lawsuit on Eve of Trial

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The Press Democrat is reporting that Sonoma County has agreed to pay $815,000 to acquire by eminent domain a family's 6.5-acre property next to the Charles M. Schulz airport for a runway extension project, settling the contentious case on the eve of trial.  According to the article, Landowners, Sonoma County settle airport expansion lawsuit, the County valued the property at $135,000, while the owner's appraiser reached a valuation conclusion of $1.5 million.  Why the large spread in appraisals?  Apparently because of a dispute over the property's highest and best use.

To provide some background, just compensation in eminent domain actions requires an examination of the highest and best use to which the property can be put, and value is based on the most profitable use to which the property may be put in the reasonably near future.  An appraiser typically considers whether the proposed use is legally permissible, physically possible, financially feasible, and maximally productive.  

Here, the county claimed the home on the property was illegal, or essentially a “tear down,” and the soil didn't pass percolation tests, meaning no new home could be built.  The property owners claimed the property could be used for a wetlands mitigation bank or establishing vernal pools, which can be highly lucrative because developers are required to buy into the banks to offset impacts from their projects.  But the county argued there were too many obstacles to establishing such wetlands near the airport because they attract birds that can be a hazard to airplanes.  This difference of opinions was likely the primary culprit for the large difference in valuation opinions.