WILMINGTON—The city of Wilmington is headed to court–again–after changing the terms of an eminent domain deal that was part of the public-private River Place project.
The city is now litigating the eminent domain seizure of property behind several Front Street businesses, including Front Street Optometric Care at 273 N. Front St. and Chadworth’s Columns at 277 N. Front St. That’s in addition to another suit between the city and developers of the Waffle House building, litigation that could cost the city as much as $350,000.
All three lawsuits originated with eminent domain agreements to allow the demolition of the Water Street Parking Deck and the construction of the River Place project. Initially, these agreements caused no issue.
Then the city changed its mind.
The original agreement
On Aug. 15, 2017, City Council voted to approve a temporary easement behind the Front Street Optometric Care and Chadworth’s Columns buildings; the eminent domain move would allow construction crews access for the demolition of the Water Street Parking Deck and the early construction phases of the River Place construction.
On Oct. 13, the city officially filed paperwork for a “temporary taking” of parking area behind the building, limiting the city’s use of the land to 36 months. The city offered $32,589 as compensation to Front Street Optometric Care–and a comparable amount to Chadworth’s Columns–for the three-year agreement.
However, at some time between the initial eminent domain decision and February, either the city or McKim and Creed, the engineering firm for River Place, discovered that additional construction would be needed.
Richard Collier, regional manager for McKim and Creed, as well as vice-chairman of the Wilmington Planning Commission, did not respond to questions about the plan changes that necessitated the new eminent domain agreement.
Changing the eminent domain deal
During the Feb. 6 City Council meeting, Deputy City Manager Tony Caudle told council that the initial plans for a utility duct, which could apparently be installed unobtrusively below ground, had to be modified to include power and water sewage lines.
For Front Street Optometric Care and Chadworth’s Columns the vote meant the difference between the city temporarily taking over a piece of the building’s parking lot for three years and seizing that slice of land permanently.
Caudle told Council that, because an eminent domain agreement was already in place, the city did not need to give advanced notice.
“Essentially an amendment of existing condemnations and would not require the 30 days notice before being able to proceed with action on the condemnation,” Caudle told City Council.
Caudle added that the amount of compensation had not yet been determined; the resolution was listed on council’s agenda as having no budget impact.
Council voted 4-1 in favor of modifying the eminent domain agreement.
Councilman Paul Lawler, who had previously opposed using taxpayer money for the public-private River Place project, was the sole dissenting vote. Councilman Kevin O’Grady and Mayor Pro Tem Margaret Haynes asked to be recused.
When asked for the reason for their recusals, O’Grady told Port City Daily he and his wife had contracted to purchase a unit in the River Place development; Haynes did not respond.
A week later, on Feb. 14, the city filed amended paperwork in court. According to court documents, the city offered an adjusted total of $38,605 for Front Street Optometric Care; roughly an additional $6,000 for taking the parking lot area permanently, instead of for three years. A similar offer was made for Chadworth’s Columns.
What will it cost the city?
According to Andrew Penny, an attorney with the Crossley, McIntosh, Collier, Hanley & Edes, P.L.L.C. firm representing Front Street Optometric Care and Chadworth’s Columns, the city’s offers for both properties are insufficient.
Penny filed an April 25 answer to the city’s eminent domain modification, claiming the city “failed to deposit just compensation for the taking (eminent domain)” required by state law. The response states “the amount deposited by the Plaintiff is woefully inadequate.”
Penny said that it was too early in the process to specify what just compensation would be, only that it would be more than the city’s offer.
Discovery for a court trial in New Hanover County is scheduled for Sept. 10. Penny said his clients were open to negotiations with the city prior to that date.
City Attorney John Joye declined to comment; it is the policy of the city attorney’s office not to comment on ongoing litigation.
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