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Feds brought in on property dispute

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A recent sign on Tom Paul's property along South First Street threatens intervention by the federal government following a complaint he filed against the city of Sunnyside earlier this week.

Prosser contractor Tom Paul was at it again this week in an ongoing property dispute with the city of Sunnyside.

Only this time he's not taking his case to a county court, but to the U.S. government.

Paul filed a complaint with the Federal Highway Administration office in Olympia, claiming city officials have denied him lawful use of his property because of a $2.5 million federally funded project to widen South First Street.

Paul owns just over four acres along South First and contends his property line is 15 feet from the center of the roadway. The city counters that its right-of-way extends 30 feet from the center.

Paul has already filed a stop-work order on the street improvement project, since overturned, and filed a $3.8 million claim for damages because of what he says are coercive actions by the city in attempting to take land he claims belongs to him.

The appeal to federal authorities, Paul said, stems from action by the city council on Aug. 28 in authorizing condemnation proceedings against the disputed property.

"That set me down the course of studying federal law," he said. "It's a federally funded project (the South First Street widening) and the first mistake the city made was not taking the matter to court to see who actually owns the property."

Paul said he's spent $40,000 fighting the property line battle and feels the city should have to be the one to prove whether or not it owns the land because it is the city pursuing the street widening.

Of the condemnation, in which the city says it owns the 15-foot strip of land but will move to buy it from Paul if a court decides it is his land, Paul said it "is foolish to have an appraisal if it's their (the city's) property." He added, "Why waste tax dollars on something as foolish as that?"

City Manager Bob Stockwell said the city has not begun condemnation proceedings and expressed surprise over Paul's complaint filed with the highway authorities.

"We've gone through the entire process," Stockwell said of the steps needed to fund and proceed with widening South First. "We've followed all the state and federal regulations that we know about."

Stockwell said the city received outside legal counsel prior to authorizing the condemnation process.

He observed that the city's greatest concern over Paul's complaint action is the delay it may cause in getting started with work on South First.

"The biggest issue at this point is if complaints are raised it could delay the project," Stockwell said. "It won't keep it from happening, but the costs will keep on rising."

Stockwell said the city is willing to respond to any recommendations the Federal Highway Authority may make in the appeal's aftermath.

"If we somehow have missed some step along the way the solution is to go back and do it correctly," Stockwell noted. "We've been in touch with them (the federal government) all along the way."

As far as the $2.5 million in federal money for the project, Stockwell is confident that the federal government will not withdraw the grant if it agrees with Paul's complaint.

"I've never even heard of that happening," said Stockwell, who has 30 years experience in city management. "Would the federal government make us retrace our steps? Yes. But withdrawing the money would be an unheard of action."

The only foreseeable threat to the funds, he added, is if the complaint stalls the project indefinitely for years.

The federal government's position is to work through the complaint rather than withhold money, said David Leighow, a federal right-of-way program manager in Olympia.

But at this point it's too early to tell what will become of Paul's complaint as Leighow said his office is just beginning to research the issue.

"Basically, the first thing is fact finding," he explained. "We are gathering information from both the department of transportation and the city of Sunnyside."

Leighow added, "I'm hoping within the next week or two, at most, to get enough information to respond to Mr. Paul's complaint."

So what happens if he finds the city is out of compliance with federal highway requirements?

"If we have a situation where we find there was non-compliance then the next step is to see if it's something we can fix, something that can still be done so the procedures are followed," Leighow said.

More often that not, according to Leighow, acts of non-compliance are not intentional but because a municipality wasn't aware of a requirement. "We'll look to see if it can be corrected, that's the first step," he said.

Leighow has worked on rights-of-way issues since 1973 and admitted occasionally there are situations when a violation results in the federal government pulling highway funds.

"In those rare instances when something can't be corrected, or when an agency should have known the regulations, then withdrawing the funds is an option in a worst case scenario," Leighow said.

He said one example occurred in another state, when appraisals were not independently conducted for purchasing rights-of-way for a street project. In that instance, Leighow said the federal government pulled $1 million from the project.

Leighow stressed, though, that withdrawing funds is the exception, not the rule.

"The bottom line is that we try to work real hard with cities," he said. "We want to be sure they understand the regulations and comply with them so that it's not necessary to withdraw federal funds."

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