Coming less than a month before seeking voters’ approval in a bond and levy election, now would seem like a bad time to be going through a property condemnation battle with homeowners.
A government agency’s use of eminent domain to acquire property is rarely portrayed in ways that show the school district, city, port, state or other agency in a favorable light, because it forces property owners into a sale they haven’t sought and requires them to accept a price they often don’t agree with.
But the Everett School District — in pursuing eminent domain for three properties as it seeks to build a new high school and elementary school in the district’s south end in the North Creek region near Bothell — is following the law and meeting its fiduciary duty toward taxpayers.
The district could have waited until the process had moved through the court system before going to voters, but district officials, specifically Superintendent Gary Cohn, say that waiting to start work on design, permitting and the bond request until after condemnation proceedings were complete, would have delayed construction and added an estimated $9 million to the $216.8 million high school project.
The district, with oversight and the approval of its school board, pursued condemnation of three properties when it couldn’t reach agreement with the properties’ owners on the sale or its price. In late October, a county Superior Court judge ruled that the district had demonstrated the legal grounds to use eminent domain to acquire the three properties needed as part of the 44-acre campus. Since then, the district has reviewed appraisals and made “full, fair and just” offers — as required by state law — tacking on another $10,000 for each, which can be used by property owners for attorney fees, relocation or other costs.
That money has been forwarded by the school district to the court, which can disperse it to the property owners, even as the court continues its review of the appraisals and determines if the district needs to provide additional compensation to property owners.
But for one property, one of its owners and the district are more than $500,000 apart in agreement on a sale price.
Bruce Gutschmidt, who co-owns the property with a brother who lives in Alaska, recently submitted an appraisal of $895,000 for the 1.9 acres of property. But the district earlier received an appraisal from the brother in Alaska that sought $375,000. The district’s initial offer was $320,000, but it accepted the appraisal from the brother in Alaska and added a $10,000 bump for the owners’ additional costs.
The difference in the appraisals, Cohn and district Facilities Director Mike Gunn said, is that Bruce Gutschmidt’s appraisal assumes the value of the property if it were within the boundaries of the nearby Urban Growth Area.
It’s not. And, Gunn said, the county has been looking at the issue of the UGA’s boundaries and has made no move in the last 10 to 15 year to include the area within the UGA. In the interests of taxpayers, the district can’t accept an appraisal that’s based on land speculation, Cohn said.
Any court that would accept an appraisal based on speculation that the county might change the UGA boundaries or otherwise seek to rezone the property, would represent a significant change in precedent that would fuel a boom in property costs for any government agency seeking to buy property whether or not it was using eminent domain.
Everett Public Schools needs to build a fourth high school. And soon.
Its projections show the school district will have more than 6,600 high school-age students by 2025. The district built Cascade High School when enrollment at Everett High School school topped 2,300 students, and it built Henry M. Jackson High when Cascade’s enrollment reached a similar mark. Jackson’s enrollment is now at more than 2,450 students.
Jackson houses many of its students in 17 of the 115 portables used by the district. Without a new high school and other planned schools, the number of portables is expected to grow to 145 by 2026. District-wide, the district has 19,887 students as of this fall, with enrollment expected to grow by another 1,600 over the next decade.
A fourth high school is a must for the Everett School District.
Finding a suitable location for a school is complicated by transportation needs, the location of residents and services and the availability of property. Condemnation of property through eminent domain is often controversial, but it’s meant to determine a fair price for the property owner while recognizing the duty a government agency has to taxpayers.