By: Lydia Crawley
The Parsons Advocate
City of Davis Mayor Al Tomson addressed the allegations and a recently published Letter to the Editor, in The Parsons Advocate, made by Riverwalk Developer Pete Johnson over the City filing to condemn the 12 lots in Phase Two of the Riverwalk project as well as the private access road that runs in front of the unaffected Phase One properties to the lots at Phase Two. Tomson addressed the controversy in an interview with The Parsons Advocate on December 12th at City Hall.
Johnson has alleged that the decision was made in secret. Tomson denied that any wrong doing was made in the decision to condemn. Tomson defended the handling of discussions held by the council in the matter. According to Tomson, the discussion of land acquisition in executive session is permissible by the Open Governmental Meetings Act aka Sunshine Laws that control how civic meetings are governed. “So, often if you look back at our town meeting agendas, well, you won’t get much, though, and this is why,” Tomson said. “But we have property that’s on the agenda and whenever we had to talk about this subject, we went into executive session because one of the things you’re allowed to do when you want to do executive session, is the procurement of property. Because there is negotiation, there are price issues, there’s all sorts of ramifications. So the State allows in the Sunshine Laws for that to be handled in executive session. So that is where it has been discussed.”
According to Tomson, the matter has been before council for the past two years. “Its been discussed in the town council for over two years on a regular basis,” Tomson said.
According to Tomson, he recommended the council pursue eminent domain in the matter. Tomson said the town council was in agreement. “My recommendation, my final recommendation here recently, was that we pursue eminent domain,” Tomson said. “And that was done with the concurrence of the town council.”
Tomson said that Johnson knew of the town’s interest in the Riverwalk properties. “We’ve been discussing acquiring the properties with Pete (Johnson) for over two years,” Tomson said. “And part of the back and forth has been the town council’s positions changing over time, but Pete knew we were interested in procuring the properties.”
Tomson also addressed the matter of the $10,000 check that was sent to Johnson on the property. Johnson said it was sent as a “down payment” by the town. Tomson said it was sent with an offer to buy one parcel in the development. “We gave him a check for $10,000 last year,” Tomson said. “I think it was in the spring and an offer to buy one of the parcels of land.”
According to Tomson, negotiations on the issue stalled, but the town went ahead with a more thorough appraisal of the property so that federal grant funds could be applied for. “The negotiations went nowhere,” Tomson said. “But we still had an appraisal done because we were looking at applying for federal grant funding and for those processes, you need what’s called a ‘Yellow Book Appraisal.’ Its more detailed. Its more thorough. It has different parts of it that are not presented in a normal appraisal that you or I would do for our house.”
According to Tomson, the appraisal was below the price Johnson was asking for the property. Tomson said that the town and Johnson were still talking about setting a price at that time.“That appraisal came in, in July I believe of last year,” Tomson said. “And it was much lower than Pete’s asking price. He and I discussed that appraisal and our opinions of it. And at the juncture, we were still talking with him about wanting to acquire the properties at some negotiated price.”
Tomson said he informed Johnson in July of 2022 of the town’s intent to pursue eminent domain if an agreement could not be reached. “Its at that point, July of last year, that I said to Pete on the phone, if we could not reach agreement on the purchase of the land, that the town would look at pursuing eminent domain,” Tomson said. “And on that conversation, he said that was not a word he wanted to hear.”
According to Tomson, the town’s legal counsel has been attempting to work with Johnson’s attorney for the two sides to sit down and discuss the matter. “Since then, we have tried to continue to negotiate the purchase. We’ve had a lawyer for us work with his legal firm to even have a meeting to discuss it in detail and we were told we don’t even have the money to buy the property. So no meeting was ever held.”
According to Tomson, the town has the funding in place to purchase the property. “I’ve been to the bank,” Tomson said. “I’ve talked to them about how much money we would need to borrow and the funds we have for a down payment. And we are able to do both, borrow and pay down payment money. So as far as to acquire the land, we have the financial means to do that.”
Tomson acknowledged that Johnson questions the reasons behind the filing. “I know in Pete’s letter (to the editor) from last week that he questions us doing eminent domain for public good,” Tomson said. “Because that is what eminent domain is intended to be used for. You don’t do it capriciously or arbitrarily. You have to have a bona fide reason that supports the public.”
Tomson also acknowledged that the city by law has to compensate Johnson for the property at fair market value. “You end up having an appraisal done that establishes the value and you must buy the property at fair market value,” Tomson said. “Its not like you’re talking it for free.”
Tomson outlined the town’s plan for the public good of the land which includes parking issues on William Avenue. “There’s a couple of things we are looking at doing with these properties in particular,” Tomson said. “The first one is to solve or improve the parking situation in downtown Davis. There is no other land in Davis that is suitable for creating parking lots that would take overflow parking from William Avenue, our main street. Anyone who comes here from about Friday to Sunday or for special events, recognizes very quickly that there\s not sufficient parking.”
According to Tomson, the town is exploring a parking lot behind the Town Hall with lighted access to William Avenue. “So we are looking at for example, building a parking lot behind the Town Hall and the houses that are next to us,” Tomson said. “And having sidewalks and ramps that are lighted that connect the parking lot to William Avenue for people to be able to safely move between the street where we have the businesses and the restaurants and the parking we create. So parking is the first part of public good.”
Tomson said that the city intends to reopen an unofficial alleyway that residents had been using for years that runs through the Riverwalk project area. “The second is, all of the people that live on the south side of William Avenue have been using an alley for years,” Tomson said. “This is both the private residents and businesses have been using that alley. But that’s not an official alley. And so Pete as the land owner is able to say, ‘I don’t want anybody using that road on my property any longer.’ And so he’s blocked off the use of that alley on the west end.”
Tomson went on to state that the town intends to open the road for private and public traffic in the area, as well as pave the existing alley and join it to the road that Johnson is building on the site. “So what we want to do is make public the road that he’s building which follows a similar path to the alley and then the town to improve the rest of what’s been that alley so that there’s a road back there that’s paved for both private business and public use.”
Tomson alleged that Johnson had offered the homeowners on William Ave use of the alley in exchange for a one time fee. “He’s contacted the homeowners and said for $5,000 I’ll let you use that road,” Tomson said. “5,000 each. I think a one-time fee.”
Tomson said the town also plans to develop the park to have paved, ADA accessible trails to provide a place for people who cannot access the trails in the State Parks as easily. “Then we also want to develop the park,” Tomson said. “We want to improve the trail network with paved trails that are ADA accessible. So that maybe people that can’t go into the State Parks or go into the outdoors as easily, but they have a place that they can still commune with nature in the town.”
According to Tomson, the town is seeking funding for the pedestrian bridge that is proposed by Friends of the Blackwater to connect the Riverwalk site to the trails at Blackwater Falls State Park. “We are working to secure funding, as is the Friends of the Blackwater, for a pedestrian bridge that would connect the park with Blackwater Falls State Park trail system.”
Tomson said the town aims to be a juncture for the trail networks that surround Davis and provide pedestrian and bike access to the town without the need for motorized vehicles. “The goal here is that people can come to Davis, park their car and either hike or bike through a trail network where Davis is kind of in the middle of it, connect the trails from Camp 70 to Davis, across the bridge to Blackwater Falls State Park and you don’t need to use your vehicle if you don’t want to.”
Tomson also said the town plans to construct a band shell and expand the park to make it more of a destination for the community. “The other thing is we are looking at constructing amenities,” Tomson said. “For example a music clam shell where we can have concerts and films in the park. So that we start using the park by both residents and visitors. And what I envision, what I’ve seen in other communities, you can go get a pizza, get a burrito, get a sandwich, take your family, come down into the park, be entertained, have picnic tables, have benches so that you’re able to really enjoy the facilities and the nature that surrounds you.”
According to Tomson, the town is looking towards the future with its decision. “This is the only land we have to expand the park,” Tomson said. “And its now or never. If its built upon then its not available any longer. And there is a vision for the park today, as there will be 50 years from now and 100 years from now, but if the land’s not available, then you’ve got nothing to work with. So this is looking at today and tomorrow.”
Tomson said that he was unaware of how far the Riverwalk project had progressed when the town made its eminent domain filing. “When we did the eminent domain filing, I did not understand how far along he had been working in the shadows to get under contract all the lots that he has been pursuing while he wouldn’t talk to us,” Tomson said.
Tomson acknowledged that Johnson and his attorney had filed a motion to dismiss that is scheduled to go before the court in January. Tomson said the town will object to the motion at the hearing. Despite the legal battle, Tomson said the town is still willing to work with Johnson to reach an agreement on the issue. “I guess the other thing is, we are still willing to meet with Pete and look for a solution that’s mutually beneficial.”
The following regulations are from an article from The West Virginia Ethics Commission website on The Open Governmental Meetings Act. In regards to the writing of agenda items, the Commission writes, “The agenda item must be descriptive enough to put the public on notice of the nature of the matter being discussed regardless of whether it will be discussed in an open session or executive session. For example, an agenda item to discuss pending litigation may read, ‘Discuss pending lawsuit of Smith v. Jones with legal counsel.’ Once again, generic agenda items such as ‘Discuss pending litigation’ are too vague to adequately put the public on notice as to the matter to be discussed.”
The Commission article also addresses the matter of voting in matters pertaining to executive sessions. The Commission writes, “Votes may not be taken in an executive session. A governing body may only vote after it reconvenes in an open session. One exception is that a governing body may vote to give its attorney settlement authority in an executive session. The fact that a governing body has authorized its attorney to engage in settlement negotiations and/or has set a settlement range is not required to be disclosed. If a settlement is reached, then the settlement agreement, including the amount, becomes a matter of public record.”
The Commission article also addresses whether minutes need to be taken or disclosed to the public from an executive session of the governing body. The Commission writes, “The decision of whether or not to take minutes for an executive session lies within the discretion of the governing body. The governing body may want to seek the advice of legal counsel concerning whether minutes should be taken. If a governing body decides to take minutes in an executive session, the Act does not require the disclosure of such minutes to the public.”
For more information on the Riverwalk Condemnation, please read the companion articles featuring Johnson’s allegations and the response of a Riverwalk homeowner. The Parsons Advocate will provide updates on the story as it develops.