A new dispute on ballpark land figures

  • Article by: Mike Kaszuba
  • Star Tribune
  • August 21, 2007 - 1:59 AM

The push to build a new ballpark for the Minnesota Twins appeared to clear a major hurdle Monday when a court panel said the 8-acre site is worth $23.8 million, a figure that is relatively close to what Hennepin County and the team had offered.

But, as with most things regarding the emotionally charged land sale, nothing was simple.

Three hours after the ruling was made public, one of the three condemnation commissioners -- the only real estate appraiser on the panel -- filed a surprise dissenting report stating that he felt the land was instead worth $33.2 million.

"It's a highly unusual and bizarre development," said Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, the lead stadium negotiator for the County Board.

At a midday news conference, before the dissenting report was made public, Opat had said that while the $23.8 million award meant that the stadium "might not be as great and grand" because more public money would have to be spent on land acquisition, the project would go forward and be finished by 2010.

Although the dissenting report filed by Larry Tucker, a real estate appraiser for 32 years, has no official bearing on the panel's award, it could push the owners of the stadium site toward an appeal and lengthen what has already been a nine-month public feud over the value of the land where the 40,000-seat stadium will be built.

At the start of a nearly monthlong condemnation hearing in June, a lawyer for the landowners had said the parcel was worth $65.38 million. County officials had formally offered $13.35 million for the downtown Minneapolis parcel, and a real estate appraiser hired by the county said that the property's worth is $17.23 million.

The landowners, represented by Land Partners II, a limited liability partnership, and Hines Interests, a Texas developer, said Monday they had not decided whether to appeal the award and by and large withheld public comment.

"It was $10 million more than what they offered," Rich Pogin, a Land Partners II official, said of the $23.8 million award.

As he has in the past, Pogin blamed county officials for not doing enough to negotiate a sale price before the condemnation officially began in November. "It just seems like a remarkable and just unbelievable waste of money," he said. "There could have been a deal made before all these costs were incurred."

'Not in agreement'

Tucker did not sign the condemnation commissioners' official report and told reporters Monday that "I'm not in agreement with the number." He also predicted that the $23.8 million award would "absolutely" be appealed and likely lead to a court trial in November.

"It's a majority-rule thing. If two people sign, that becomes the number," he said of the panel's report. Though Tucker was initially put forward by the landowners to be included on the panel, a spokesman for the landowners said the county agreed to his selection.

Richard Black, a second commissioner, signed the report with Robert Schumacher, a retired Hennepin County judge who was chairman of the panel. Black, a real estate development specialist, said he initially felt the three commissioners would agree on a dollar amount.

"The commissioners had a range; obviously one commissioner didn't go for it," he said. "We deliberated a lot. I would say, for a while, [the difference among us] wasn't apparent.

"We felt things would be worked out, that we'd agree on some number," he added. But Black also said the case was complex and pointed to the wide range of land values given by expert witnesses in the case. "You had ... experts," he said. "Look at their ranges."

Black also said he did not feel the $23.8 million would necessarily be appealed. "We [felt] like we would reach a number that's fair, reasonable and agreeable to all parties," he said.

Schumacher said Tucker's dissenting report was not necessarily an unusual move in a condemnation case. "I respect his opinion," Schumacher said. "We worked very hard. We spent four days going over the evidence ... It's just the way it came out."

With a formal groundbreaking for the stadium scheduled for Aug. 30, the panel's award -- and even an appeal of it -- is not likely to stall the project. But the final figure will have a large bearing on how much money Hennepin County, whose ballpark infrastructure budget is capped at $90 million by the Legislature, has to spend on nearby roadways, sidewalks and utilities.

Legal fees to be covered

Opat acknowledged that the $23.8 million condemnation award also means the county would have to pay both sides' legal fees for the condemnation hearing, and he said the county had spent an estimated $1 million. Pogin said the landowners had estimated the legal fees, not including a November trial, at more than $2 million.

"Does the project take a hit? Certainly," said Opat, who said county officials were debating whether they would appeal the award.

Also, Opat again declined to disclose the details of a nonpublic agreement the county has made with the Twins to help with the costs of land acquisition and other infrastructure. He said the figure would be disclosed "when the land is finally settled and signed and delivered, and the last payment's made. That would be my guess."That's what we agreed to," he added.

Hennepin County is contributing much of the $522 million stadium's cost through a 0.15 percent countywide sales tax that continues to draw loud opposition and support from local taxpayers. The Twins are contributing $130 million, along with the amount in the nonpublic agreement.

Twins President David St. Peter declined Monday to comment on the condemnation award. "The county is taking the lead," he said. "I'm not really going to go there. That really hasn't been our focus. We've been focused on building a ballpark."

At a Friday meeting of the Minnesota Ballpark Authority, which will own the stadium, officials ticked off the progress of the construction. A report filed with the authority showed that $25.9 million in contracts had been awarded and that pile-driving on the site was underway and on schedule.

"The project is going forward, no matter what," said Steve Cramer, the Ballpark Authority's chairman. "There will be a project, but the nature of it, the quality of it, the impact of it could be influenced dramatically by [the condemnation] number."

Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388

Mike Kaszuba •

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