State seeks property for widening project

Negotiations paving way for Highway 502 improvements

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 

DOLLARS CORNER — Jerry Barnes knows what’s coming. He’s come to accept that he’ll be letting go of the house that’s been in his family for multiple generations.

BY THE NUMBERS

Of the 180 total property acquisitions the Washington State Department of Transportation will need to widen state Highway 502:

141 are partial acquisitions.

32 are access-only acquisitions.

7 are complete acquisitions.

23 buildings sit in the planned right of way.

He just wishes it would happen a little faster.

“It’s not been horrible,” Barnes said. “But it’s been painfully slow.”

Barnes lives in the Dollars Corner area, his house sitting just off state Highway 502. But with the Washington State Department of Transportation planning to widen the highway to four lanes between Interstate 5 and Battle Ground, Barnes’ home is one of 23 buildings that fall within the planned right of way for the expanded highway. Those residents and businesses will have to sell and relocate before work begins.

Construction on the first phase of the $88 million project is scheduled to begin next year. Until then, WSDOT planners are quietly working through the process of acquiring at least a portion of 180 different properties along the highway corridor. But there’s a long way to go — only about 15 of those transactions are done deals or soon to be closed, according to WSDOT spokeswoman Abbi Russell. The rest are either in negotiations or waiting for appraisals.

“Some property owners do not have their offers, but most do,” Russell said.

Appraisals and offers are often a starting point in the process, said David Harjo, a regional real estate services manager with WSDOT. The agency will also consider reviews and counteroffers if the offer is less than the owner feels is justified, he said. Once a deal is resolved, the goal is to leave owners with no out-of-pocket closing costs, Harjo said.

If the two sides can’t agree, then the matter goes to court. So far, negotiations with one property owner have reached that point, Russell said.

The acquisition effort began as early as 2009, according to WSDOT, but has been complicated by a volatile real estate market and plummeting property values. That leaves many owners in a bad position to sell with values much lower than they were several years ago.

“These folks are in a tough spot,” Russell said. “No matter what way we talk to them about it, we realize how tough it is.”

Negotiations have been less than smooth in some cases. At O’Brady’s Drive-In, owner Susie Brady said the restaurant has operated under a cloud of uncertainty, not knowing whether it will be able to keep its home at the intersection of Highway 502 and Northeast 72nd Avenue.

Brady felt the state’s initial offer for the O’Brady’s property was too low. She figured the restaurant would have to move because of the widening project. But a more recently crafted arrangement with the neighboring owner would move the O’Brady’s parking lot to the west of the building to make room for construction. Customers now park on the north side of the building, just off the highway.

“A little farther to walk to stay open,” Brady said, “but we stay open.”

That plan isn’t a sure thing just yet. Financial details of the joint arrangement haven’t been worked out, Brady said.

“It’s a long waiting game,” she added.

That drawn-out uncertainty is among the most frustrating parts of the acquisition process, Barnes said. He’ll be able to build a new home farther back on his family’s land, he said, but is still waiting for his formal purchase offer from the state.

Of the 180 properties the project will impact, 141 will be partial purchases, Russell said. WSDOT plans to buy seven entire properties. Thirty-two others will be access-only acquisitions — buying easements on a private driveway, for example.

Until that’s done, contractors will wait, too.

“Right of way is just one part of the project that has to be complete before you can go out and build a project like this,” WSDOT project manager Chris Tams said.

Two phases

Highway 502 will look very different by the time its widening is complete. But drivers likely won’t notice a drastic difference when the first phase begins construction next year, Russell said.

Next spring, crews will get started on preliminary work such as utility installation, building stormwater facilities and wetland mitigation sites. The split is intended to set the stage for a smoother phase two, Russell said. That’s when crews will actually widen the highway, revamp intersections and install median barriers starting in 2013.

Planners hope the end result will improve traffic flow and safety along the busy corridor. It will also bring sidewalks and bike lanes to the commercial area at Dollars Corner.

The widening isn’t the biggest endeavor WSDOT has ever tackled. But it’s still sizable, and the number of properties affected raises its complexity by a few degrees, Harjo said.

“This is one of our larger projects for the past several years,” Harjo said. “A project of this magnitude, with this many property owners, is a little bit different.”

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