A five-year legal battle over a 15-foot wide stretch of land along South First Street ended yesterday when the city of Sunnyside and Prosser contractor Tom Paul reached a deal.
Monday's settlement became official when the Sunnyside City Council accepted it last night after a one-hour executive session.
Paul and the city had been locked in a dispute over whether the land, measuring about 800 feet in length along South First, belonged to him or was in the city's right-of-way.
The two sides decided to split the difference, as the city will pay Paul $139,000 for a seven-foot wide portion of the land adjacent to the roadway. Paul will keep the remaining eight-foot wide stretch.
The deal allows Sunnyside to proceed with its South First expansion plans. Under the settlement, the city agrees to place a sidewalk in front of Paul's property. Sunnyside officials had previously indicated they would proceed without Paul's property and skip putting sidewalks in that area.
Sunnyside will also essentially re-instate a 2005 conditional use permit allowing Paul to establish a commercial billboard on his property. Council had in the past couple of years revoked the permit as part of the land dispute.
Interim City Manager Mark Kunkler said he's pleased to see the land issue put to rest. "It's nice to have it done," he said. "I've got a stack of papers (from the Paul case) that's four-foot high."
Kunkler added there may be an opportunity as soon as this year to get started on the South First Street improvements. With right-of-way purchases in hand for the street upgrade, Kunkler said the next task is for federal authorities to review the rights-of-way obtained so the project can go out to bid.
Payment for Paul's portion of land will come from a federal highway grant the city received for South First Street.
The deal struck yesterday puts an end to the legal battle between Paul and the city, as well as the legal fees both entities incurred.
Paul said this morning he wanted to take the city to court, but that his mounting attorney fees had already added up to $70,000. Sunnyside's legal bills have topped $150,000 and Kunkler said not all the bills have come in yet from the Seattle law firm of Preston, Gates and Ellis.
"I think it was a fair agreement," Paul said.
As for the several political signs on his property critical of Sunnyside city officials, Kunkler in particular, Paul said he's not sure what he'll do with them. Claiming the city had in the past blackballed him from building on his property, Paul said, "I'll have to wait and see."
He admitted, though, that the signs will probably need to come down.
Noting that he has businesses interested in advertising on his billboard, Paul said advertisers "are not going to want to see those (political) signs. There's no money in free speech."