Displaced by courthouse plan, attorneys want to buy land back

EVERETT — One set of attorneys displaced by Snohomish County’s mothballed courthouse project wants the chance to buy back their old building.

Melissa and Brian Sullivan’s former practice on Rockefeller Avenue has remained vacant in the year-plus since the county bought it and five other properties using eminent domain. The county’s elected leaders had been preparing to build an eight-story courthouse on the site, which also includes a county-owned parking lot. They pulled the plug over the summer, citing budget concerns and Everett’s requirements for more parking.

“We submitted to the government’s demand that we vacate our premises based on the county’s assurance that they had done their due diligence and that the project would break ground within months,” the Sullivans wrote in their Jan. 8 letter. “In the end, our concerns had been spot on. The lack of sufficient parking would be an issue that would eventually scuttle the entire project.”

The Sullivans, a husband and wife who are no relation to County Councilman Brian Sullivan, received $705,000 for their building, land and moving expenses. They say they’ve seen business drop off since moving to a new office several blocks to the south on Rockefeller Avenue. They are now farther from the courthouse than their former prime location. The eminent domain law only requires compensation for the fair market value of a property, not for lost business.

Melissa Sullivan said she’s disheartened to see the waste of having their old offices sit empty and neglected with no public benefit in return.

“The only thing they’ve moved forward with is collecting money from our old parking lots,” she said.

What’s to become of the $3.4 million in property the county acquired for the rejected courthouse plans is an open question. It’s to the north across Wall Street and a block east of the existing 1960s-era courthouse that county leaders hope to replace because of safety issues and maintenance headaches.

County Executive Dave Somers has listed reexamining courthouse plans among his first priorities after taking office this year. He’s convening a working committee of judges, administrators and others with a stake in the courts. They hope to make recommendations to the County Council this spring.

Leaders from the county and Everett city government also are promising better communication this time around.

Somers has said he’s not sure how things will shape up, but he hopes to see a proposal that’s less expensive than the $162 million plan that evolved under his predecessor, John Lovick, and was approved by the County Council. Council Chairman Terry Ryan favors a project that’s also nearer to the existing courthouse on the south side of Wall Street.

The owner of another former law office on Rockefeller Avenue in October filed a damage claim against the county, a precursor to a lawsuit. The owner of a third law office purchased through eminent domain is contemplating legal action.

Royce Ferguson, who was forced from a building where he’d practiced law for more than 20 years, said he recently abandoned a $2 million claim against the county over his personal losses. Ferguson, however, intends to pursue another part of his damage claim on behalf of all Snohomish County taxpayers.

To pay for courthouse construction, the County Council in 2013 approved a property-tax hike then estimated to cost the average homeowner an extra $20 per year.

Ferguson is asking the county to refund those taxes and for the courts to prohibit the county from using the money for other programs.

“That is still a viable and possible lawsuit, for which I would have the extra time and energy to pursue, depending upon what the new administration does about correcting the courthouse mess and addressing the tax increase imposed upon taxpayers,” Ferguson wrote. “That suit ultimately may or may not be successful, but the council would not need to wait for a lawsuit and court ruling before doing what is fair, as attorney Sullivan points out.”

DUI attorney David Jolly said he remains upset about the county taking his old law building, but has not decided on a course of action.

A legal messenger service, a bail bonds business and a private parking lot also were bought out by the county.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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