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County wants new trial over airport property

August 16, 1997

By STEVEN T. DENNIS

Staff Writer

Washington County is seeking a new trial over the price charged for a 6.37-acre tract of farmland next to Washington County Regional Airport.

The county condemned the property owned by Richard L. Byers and wife JoAnn E. Byers for the purpose of extending an airport protection zone, county officials said. The property is across U.S. 11 from the airport's main east-west runway.

A jury ruled the county should pay $163,194.94 for the agriculture-zoned property instead of the $66,200 the county wanted to pay.

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JoAnn Byers said she felt that the county was trying to litigate them to death. Ken Baker, an expert witness for Byers, said they have probably spent close to $40,000 in legal fees and said a new trial could sap any awards received.

County Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers said the jury has spoken and it's time to move on.

But the motion filed on behalf of the county by local attorney William C. Wantz argues that testimony by Baker should not have been allowed by Judge Daniel Moylan.

The Byers had sought nearly $400,000 in damages, with Baker contending the purchase lowered the value of the Byers' remaining 18-acre property and that the agriculture-zoned property should be valued as if it were used for industrial purposes.

Airport Manager Carolyn Motz said the purchase was part of a multimillion-dollar effort paid for in part by a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration to increase air safety by purchasing properties at the ends of runways to prevent development.

A key issue in the case was whether a 1984 comprehensive rezoning by the county of property surrounding the airport was designed solely to depress property values to lower the county's cost of buying properties in the future.

Wantz told the jury the rezoning was actually an upzoning of the property.

Byers' attorney Paul Victor Jorgensen contended that a possible extension of the airport runway over U.S. 11 and the Byers property mentioned in city and county planning documents unfairly lowered the value of the property.

But Wantz said the project had virtually no chance of being constructed in the foreseeable future.

Motz said the project had been talked about but said the cost - in the tens of millions of dollars - made it impractical at this point.

Almost all of the legal and purchase costs for the county are being borne by the Federal Aviation Administration, while the Byers' legal fees are coming from their own pocket, said Jorgenson.

"The county doesn't really have to worry about what it's costing them," Jorgenson said.

Wantz wasn't available for comment Thursday.

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