We still don’t know whether the Tampa-to-Orlando high speed rail project is a boon or a boondoggle (I’m leaning towards boondoggle). But if the state fast-tracks this project, it will have to raze or relocate plenty of homes in and around Ybor City.
How should neighbors brace themselves for the prospective eminent domain takings? Be mean. And be clean. That was the consensus of about two dozen neighbors who gathered after-hours in Tampa this week.
The rail project, combined with the related widening of Interstates 4 and 275, promises to take a major chunk out of 12th Avenue on the edge of the Ybor historic district. As eminent domain attorney Andrew Diaz made clear to neighbors, the government has little incentive to offer the highest and best price for land it takes. Diaz offered advice for anyone facing an eminent domain case:
* Keep the property in good shape. The state will send out appraisers on which it will base it’s bid for the property. So you don’t want it looking like a dog house. Diaz cited families who, upon getting word that the government would widen 22nd Street in Palmetto, immediately moved out of their homes. The project was delayed and those families ultimately surrendered thousands of dollars they would have otherwise gotten.
* Summon a jury if you have to. Most of the time the government and homeowners can negotiate a fair price. But if all else fails, neighbors can demand a trial in front of a 12-person jury. The state has to pay the homeowner’s legal costs.
* Mum’s the word. Don’t talk to government officials about the case. They’re not your friends. Things you’ve said come back to haunt you in court. If you speculated your home is worth $100,000, how much do you want to bet the government’s offer won’t be a dime over that amount?
* Hire a lawyer. I know – this is self serving on Diaz’s part. But it makes sense. These lawyers work on contingency. Diaz gets a percentage of whatever he gets for the homeowner over and above the initial offer. That percentage is paid by the state, not the homeowner. He recounted a land grab to build a trolley station in front of the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel. The city initially offered $4.5 million. Diaz’s firm ultimately squeezed $9 million out of the government. The law firm collected $2.5 million in fees. But it didn’t come off the landowners’ hide.
Neighbors generally weren’t happy about the rail line. Several had just poured tens of thousands of dollars into their properties. But if the multi-billion-dollar project happens, they want full compensation. Is it worth building an expensive rail line to connect Ybor and Disney World, a trip that takes about an hour in your car? Let’s save that debate for another day.