By: Lydia Crawley
The Parsons Advocate
The City of Davis has condemned most of the Riverwalk project. The measure by the City has halted further construction in the area, as well as the sale of any lots not currently being constructed. The area condemned contains the main road for the neighborhood as well as the lots awaiting financing or the beginning of construction. Any houses currently being constructed have not been included in the measure.
According to Developer Pete Johnson, he began the Riverwalk project 22 years ago to bring additional housing to Davis. Johnson, who currently resides in Montgomery County, MD, has begun construction on his retirement home on lot one of the Riverwalk project. Johnson’s home is one of five currently under construction that are not affected by the City’s eminent domain filing. “We’ve been doing this for 22 years, this project,” Johnson said.
According to Johnson, Phase One of the project which includes the houses currently under construction has not been affected. Only Phase Two which consist empty lots with utilities ran to them have been condemned. The housing project contains 18 lots, according to Johnson, with 12 being included in the condemnation filing. “It is a petition for condemnation of all twelve lots and the private roadway that leads to them,” Johnson said.
According to Johnson, Phase One also should have been included in the filing by the City as an “affected property” due to the City condemning the roadway in front of the Phase One properties. The roadway runs the length of the development to the Phase Two condemned lands. “They didn’t include this (Phase One houses) in the suit,” Johnson said. “But they are supposed to by law because it is what is called an affected property. So when you condemn the roadway coming in, this road is a private roadway.”
Johnson said he has invested $400,000 into upgrading the site for housing construction through infrastructure. “We had just finished putting $400,000 worth of infrastructure defined as design and then engineering, electric and gas and water and sewer and telecom and so forth,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he has worked with the City throughout the duration of the project and has complied with all requests the City has made. “They (The City) worked with us the whole way,” Johnson said. “Approving the designs, the infrastructure, providing the town engineer. We just signed a transfer agreement for Phase One and Two sewer and water. Its called a Line Extension Agreement with them within four weeks of them serving us.”
While the filing came as a surprise to Johnson, he said that he had been approached four times by Tomson with offers to purchase the property. According to Johnson, he only became aware of the filing when a lot went through a title search as part of the sale. “They slapped that paperwork on it an surprised us,” Johnson said. “They (the City) had been talking about buying, talking to me about buying those, they mayor has. Like four different times he’s approached me with super unrealistic terms.”
Johnson referred to the City’s offers as “unrealistic” and said that at one point he had been sent a $10,000 check via FedEx as a “down payment” pending the City’s application for grant funding. Johnson said he rejected the offer. “He gave me a check,” Johnson said. “They FedExed me a check for $10,000 and said please accept this as a down payment and stop your project while we go find grant money. I’ll keep the door open, but come talk to me when you have a check book.”
Johnson called the measure by the City “a land grab.” Johnson claims the subdivision is popular among the locals, but that as a whole the idea isn’t popular among a small minority in the community. “Its just a small handful,” Johnson said. “Its a very popular subdivision, but its not a popular idea and I don’t think most people even know about it.”
Johnson said that the measure was taken in secret with there being no City Council vote or minutes able to be found on the issue. “They did it without holding a council vote,” Johnson said. “No one can find any minutes about it.”
Johnson further stated that two of the Building Commission members have recently resigned. Johnson also claimed that the President and Vice President who resigned had no knowledge of the plan to condemn the properties. “The President of the Building Commission resigned,” Johnson said. “And the Vice President of the Building Commission resigned and all that is left is the Secretary of the Building Commission. My understanding is that they never saw the petition to condemn and did not know that the town was condemning.”
Johnson further went on to state that the Building Commission should have been involved as an independent entity that make recommendations in such matters. “As you know, the Building Commission is supposed to be an independent entity that makes its own conclusions and then recommends them to the town council and then the council votes to adopt their recommendation. None of that happened. That’s my understanding.”
According to Johnson, the filing included on it the City of Davis, the Building Commission and the Parks and Recreation Commission. “They had three parties on their end: the town, the Building Commission and Parks and Rec Commission.”
Johnson said the condemnation was filed inappropriately by the City. According to Johnson, when the motion was filed, the City of Davis was supposed to file with money backing the measure. Johnson said there was no money filed by the City. “When they condemn it, they have to petition at the courthouse with the money,” Johnson said. “They can’t just file a document. In this case, (they) posted the petition without posting any money and its damaging my – I have multiple buyers who are under sale contracts waiting…for their financing to come through and now everything is suspended and there’s a cloud on the title. They can’t go forward.”
The filing by the City has caused the completion of the sale of lots to be held up with several buyers in limbo with financing unable to be completed. Several of the lots in Phase Two are currently under contract, according to Johnson, with buyers unable to complete their financing or begin construction on the site. One such buyer is Colt Holbert is a native of Parkersburg who has family ties to Davis.
Johnson said the timing of the measure was suspect. “They did this at a very odd time,” Johnson said. “They did this right at the end of the development. I’d already finished everything and sold all the lots and people are finalizing their closings and BAM, here they come in.”
Johnson said he has created value to the property and that the lots in the Riverwalk development are the highest valued lots in the City. “I’ve created evaluations,” Johnson said. “We created an HOA for this, its on the river front, its got views and the lots are selling between 75 and 110 and they aren’t seeing anything in terms of evaluations so their response is, ‘Let’s borrow money and buy the most expensive land in Davis.’”
Johnson said the development was designed to get its residents to all the area has to offer as opposed to alone on acreages. According to Johnson, his development would eliminate the need for people to drive distances to take advantage of the local shops, restaurants and amenities because they would already be there. “Until recently, people didn’t think in terms of how to enjoy it from a small town or village versus vacation homes that are pretending to be by themselves on five acre lots in the valley and that was like getting away from it all,” Johnson said. “Whereas what we’ve designed here is, getting to it all.”
Johnson said his project also includes a parkland donation along the riverfront. The tract that is being donated to the DNR, will tie into a newly proposed trail and bridge in cooperation with Friends of the Blackwater, according to Johnson. “This park land donation, I’ve been planning and talking about a whole document on the types of species, a trail location and the town’s response is (this),” Johnson said. “Its not what they care about. They care about stopping these houses for some reason.”
Johnson does attribute that reason to the City’s desire to place a parking lot where the housing project is. “They throw out things like green space,” Johnson said. “Its included in the (Riverwalk) plans, but they want green space, ‘but we mean green space specifically where you want to build a house.’ They want a parking lot and we are not wanting parking through there.”
Johnson said that through his attorney, a motion to dismiss has been filed in the court over the condemnation filing. A court date has been set for January on the motion with Judge Ryan in District Court.
Eminent Domain is defined by the Legal Information Institute (LII) as, “Eminent domain refers to the power of the government to take private property and convert it into public use, referred to as a taking. The Fifth Amendment provides that the government may only exercise this power if they provide just compensation to the property owners. A taking may be the actual seizure of property by the government, or the taking may be in the form of a regulatory taking, which occurs when the government restricts a person’s use of their property to the point of it constituting a taking.” The LII further clarifies that, “Courts broadly interpret the Fifth Amendment to allow the government to seize property if doing so will increase the general public welfare.”
For more on the Riverwalk controversy, please read the companion articles on Mayor Tomson’s response and the homeowners response to the Condemnation fight. The Parsons Advocate will provide updates on the story as it progresses.