Residents fight city's attempt to gain land

Using its eminent domain power, the City of Federal Way next week plans to move forward with plans to condemn frequently flooded land on the city’s southwest side.

But at least five property owners aren’t ready to give up the fight for their land.

The city can draw a line in their dirt, they say, but they can’t cross it. Legally speaking, at least not yet.

Sixth Avenue Southwest resident Charles Connon and some of his neighbors have been battling the city for years over the city’s proposed regional stormwater retention facility at Southwest 356th Street. It’s just west the Hylebos Wetlands State Park.

Connon has lived on his land for 12 years, and says he’s seen a barrage of nearby residential development increase runoff levels in recent years.

The developers have moved the dirt and, “Now the solution has migrated to us,” he said.

Through letters and face-to-face meetings, Connon says he’s tried to find common ground with the city, which wants about a quarter-acre of his property for the runoff retention facility. The city already took one-third acre from Connon when it widened a roadway.

Following the recommendation of staff and a consultant’s report, the city is trying to obtain land in the drainage area - called a “closed depression” — to an elevation of 320 feet. Connon, however, thinks his land would be untouched if the city were only taking land up to 310 feet in elevation.

“Although they say they negotiate, they don’t give an inch,” Connon said.

City Public Works Director Cary Roe disagrees. Roe said the regional stormwater retention facility has been on the city agenda for a long time, and was on King County’s before that. While the city has tried to work at compromises with affected landholders, not all property negotiations have gotten far.

“We’ve not been able to reach a mutual understanding on that process,” Roe said.

Roe added there are still some steps to complete before the city would actually condemn and take over the land by a judge’s decree.

If the city council passes the ordinance this month, it gives direction to Roe’s department and city attorneys to file a court motion to seize the land, he said.

“We are a long ways, in my opinion, from actually condemning the property,” Roe said.

Condemnation complaints

Two years ago, the city offered $2,500 for an easement for Connon’s affected quarter-acre. He declined.

“For 18 months, I never heard anything from them. I had hoped maybe they had gone away. But it didn’t work,” he said.

The city eventually offered him $16,400 for the portion of his land, but Connon says he was forced to decline that offer because his remaining land would be too small, precluding him from adding another house on the property. There would be no room to put in septic tank and drain field, he explained.

Connon also points to the predicament of a neighbor who could lose his two-thirds of his plot, including land where his septic drain field and garage are located, to a condemnation action.

“They’ll leave him with practically nothing,” Connon said. A phone message left for the neighbor was not returned.

Connon says if the matter goes to court, he doesn’t believe the affected property owners will get a fair shake before a judge.

“The City Council gets briefed by the staff, but they won’t listen to the victims’ side,” Connon said.

Some of the neighbors are ready to fight the city as a former resident of the area, Roy Parke, did in 1999. Parke eventually sold his land to a developer and attempted to sue the city before withdrawing his complaint.

City Attorney Bob Sterbank said the city tried to compromise with affected residents, and has had some success with five property owners. But others, including Connon, complained about the city’s proposed solutions to the runoff problem even as their flooding on the property gets worse every year.

“There’s an inconsistency or at least some irony in what (Connon says) the city is trying to do,” Sterbank said.

Sterbank added that studies by various experts in the past decade have looked at the proposed solution. The depression draws runoff from about 344 acres of developed area, which is largely residential.

“The history of flooding in this basin has been documented extensively going back to the late ‘80s,” Sterbank said.

The most recent study examined a total of six alternatives to solve the flooding concerns. The most costly of which would divert water away from the neighbors at a cost of $2.5 million. The property acquisition plan, meanwhile would only cost about $365,000, the study estimates.

“The way to solve this is with a property acquisition program,” Sterbank said.

It’s the cheapest, least technical and most practical solution, he said.

“There’s no conspiracy. We’re pursuing the solution that was identified more than a decade ago,” Sterbank said.

Eminent domain

The city’s most recent moves toward condemnation were outlined in a consultant’s study presented in March 1999. The study recommended securing frequently flooded land for the stormwater retention facility and suggested the city acquire land to create a 354-acre drainage basin south of Enterprise Elementary School.

On the community radar since 1988, the property acquisition was listed as part of the city’s capital improvement projects for 2001 and was approved in the City Council’s six-year surface water management plans. Eminent domain power allows the city to wrest property from owners with the force of law but mandates owners are fairly compensated for their loss.

The city ordinance that would permit condemnation of the properties will have a first reading at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, and could take effect five days after final passage by the council.

Some of property owners listed said they would not compromise, but others have intimated they may eventually come to the table. The city has left the door open. “Staff does not intend to cease negotiations if the ordinance is adopted,” according to the council agenda bill,

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