Lawyer seeks $2M over property for now-shelved courthouse

EVERETT — An Everett attorney who lost his downtown office building to Snohomish County’s now-mothballed quest to construct a new courthouse wants $2 million for his trouble, and taxpayer refunds for all money that’s been collected for the project.

Royce Ferguson filed the claim for damages Tuesday. If the county turns him down, his next step would be a lawsuit.

The county obtained a court order and took Ferguson’s property in November, paying fair market value but not compensating him for the loss of business, disruption and other concerns, the damage claim says.

Since then, the community has “learned that the courthouse project as proposed by Snohomish County Executive John Lovick was over budget, had been initiated without first having necessary building or parking permits from the city of Everett, and was not ‘imperative,’” the claim says. “… Rather, events show that the county was ill-prepared and generally unknowledgeable and ill-advised before taking the private properties through eminent domain proceedings.”

The claim lists Lovick and all members of the County Council — Dave Somers, Brian Sullivan, Stephanie Wright, Terry Ryan and Ken Klein — as having knowledge or involvement in the county’s actions.

“How can the county deny that they haven’t wasted money, that they haven’t screwed this up?” Ferguson said Tuesday.

Jason Cummings, the county’s chief civil deputy prosecutor, said lawyers in his office will review the claim “and we’ll respond accordingly.”

The courthouse project has been an exercise in frustration for many.

Crews had been scheduled to break ground this summer on a $162 million courthouse building with eight stories and a basement. Those plans are shelved for now over financial concerns and a dispute with Everett about parking requirements.

The County Council had picked that location in late 2013 over less expensive options.

Most of the proposed courthouse site was a county-owned parking lot on the southeast corner of Wall Street and Oakes Avenue. The county also had to buy out six smaller properties on the block, including the building on Rockefeller Avenue that had served as Ferguson’s law practice for more than 20 years. Also acquired were two other law offices, a bail bonds business, a legal messenger service and a small parking lot.

The county paid roughly $3.6 million combined for those properties.

The discussion about what to do about the courthouse is unlikely to resume until next year. That would push any decision past election season and the passage of the county’s 2016 budget.

David Jolly used to run his law firm from a building next door to Ferguson’s. He, too, expects to seek damages from the county.

“I commend Royce for taking the lead on this,” Jolly said Tuesday. “We’re looking at the same type of action. We’re not quite ready to act on it, but I anticipate this year we’ll be doing something similar.”

Jolly estimated that his practice specializing in DUI defense has declined about 40 percent since the county bought him out last year.

“We’ve had to lay off two attorneys,” he said. “Now it’s just me. We went from three to one.”

One prong of Ferguson’s claim would require the county to fully refund any taxes the county has collected to pay for the courthouse project. Lovick has proposed a refund in his 2016 budget, but Ferguson said he believes only some of the courthouse money would be returned with portions still going to pay for other county programs.

Snohomish County judges and others have for years been urging the county to replace its 1967-vintage courthouse. Problems there include the presence of asbestos, faulty plumbing, rickety elevators and vulnerability to damage in a major earthquake. A key safety concern is the lack of security features that can keep criminal defendants separate from court staff and others in the building.

Scott North: 425-339-3431; north@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @snorthnews.

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