State offers $30K in damage dispute

Owner of Ridgefield property says costs incurred exceed offer

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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The clock is ticking, and Caroll Stuart-Luna isn’t sure of her next move.

Embroiled in a nearly 2-year-old dispute with the state over damage to a property she owns in Ridgefield, Stuart-Luna now finds herself faced with a decision point. She can accept a $30,000 settlement offer before Friday’s deadline. Or she can pursue legal action, and risk getting nothing.

“I don’t know what to do,” said Stuart-Luna, 77.

The controversy stems from a Washington State Department of Transportation project to expand the Interstate 5 interchange at Highway 501 in Ridgefield. Work began in fall 2009, and it wasn’t long before Stuart-Luna, who lives in Hawaii, received a call from her grandson.

It was about her Ridgefield property, wedged into a triangular 1.29 acres between I-5 and South Timm Road. Stuart-Luna’s grandson told her the well house on the north end had been plowed over. And that wasn’t the only damage, he said.

“That was the first notice I had,” Stuart-Luna said.

Crews moved in and cleared the area under the belief that the well was not on private property, said WSDOT project engineer Chris Tams. A survey completed just before the project showed the structure straddling city of Ridgefield land and state right of way around the freeway — but not on Stuart-Luna’s land, just to the south.

State officials asked for another survey in 2010, after the question was raised again. This time, they got a different result: Boundary lines showed the well sitting on all three parcels.

“We impacted that structure,” Tams said. “We have responsibility for any damage that we do.”

Other problems cited

The state offered Stuart-Luna $30,000 as compensation — a high-end estimate for the well damage, according to Tams. That offer has been on the table for close to a year, he said. Stuart-Luna has until Friday to take it or leave it.

But Stuart-Luna said she’s already spent more than that in engineering and legal fees making her case to the state. That includes a lengthy, independent engineering report she commissioned earlier this year documenting other damages to the property.

The report lists vegetation and tree removal, destroyed fencing, slope changes and culvert pipe damage among other negative impacts to Stuart-Luna’s property. A 2010 estimate by an attorney Stuart-Luna hired tallied total damages at $84,000.

The entire property’s assessed value was only $82,722 in 2010, according to county records. It had been valued at $132,900 as recently as 2008, records show.

WSDOT didn’t directly reach out to Stuart-Luna before the well house was cleared out as part of prep work near the freeway, said spokeswoman Abbi Russell, because planners had thought the structure was entirely on public right of way. But regular public notices and project information were available ahead of time, she said.

Stuart-Luna bought the land in the late 1980s as an investment, she said. It’s unoccupied and largely undeveloped — only a damaged, uninhabitable storage building sits there now — but she had planned to sell it at some point. With a limited income, Stuart-Luna said she’s running out of resources to live and mount her challenge to the state.

“That’s part of my retirement,” she said.

‘Fairly compensated’

Stuart-Luna’s situation is far from the first time a resident has quarrelled with the state over a property dispute. A separate controversy began when WSDOT crews used a private access road for a wetland mitigation project near Ridgefield in 2009.

In any such case, the state tries to achieve a reasonable outcome for all parties, said WSDOT’s Russell.

“We have to have the interest of both the taxpayer and the property owner in mind,” Russell said. “But we want to make sure these folks are fairly compensated. That’s the crux here.”

Stuart-Luna, in Southwest Washington this month, hasn’t formally responded to her $30,000 offer. If she takes the matter to court, the offer is off the table, Tams said. If she lets the deadline pass without a response, the matter is dismissed and the offer is off the table, he said.

Stuart-Luna said she feels bullied by the state’s actions, and had no choice but to make her case after learning what happened. Without regular representation, she’s recently thought of going to Olympia herself.

Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking. The Friday deadline approaches. As Stuart-Luna pored over details of the saga last week, she asked herself a familiar question:

“What am I going to do?”

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541 or eric.florip@columbian.com.