O'Brady's business on edge at Dollars Corner

Highway will displace restaurant; owner wishes she knew when -- and if she will be able to relocate

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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photoSteven Lane/The Columbian Blake Robb, 12, from Vancouver, orders an ice cream cone Wednesday at O'Brady's restaurant. The Dollars Corner fixture expects to close at that location this year, before a planned widening of state Highway 502 begins in earnest in 2013.

Susie Brady knows this much: The restaurant she's operated at Dollars Corner for more than 14 years likely won't be there by the end of this year.

What she doesn't know is an exact date O'Brady's will close, or what happens after that.

"My focus has always been relocation," Brady said. "I'm fighting for this place because I need enough money for relocation."

Brady is locked in a compensation dispute with the Washington State Department of Transportation, which needs part of Brady's and many other properties for a planned widening of state Highway 502 between Interstate 5 and Battle Ground. The two parties have both signed a possession and use agreement that will turn the land over the state in December. At issue is how much WSDOT will pay to acquire some or all of it.

The state made an initial offer of $291,000, according to Brady -- an amount she feels is inadequate, and not nearly enough to pay for O'Brady's to move. WSDOT officials said they can't confirm dollar amounts in an ongoing negotiation process, but said they offered what they view as fair based on a recent appraisal. The 0.25-acre property carries an assessed value of $253,090, according to Clark County records.

O'Brady's hired a firm to conduct its own appraisal, which Brady said is "substantially" higher than those numbers. The dispute may end up in court, in which case a jury would decide the proper compensation. If that happens, the state will pay whatever the court determines is fair, according to WSDOT spokeswoman Abbi Russell.

The situation only adds to years of uncertainty for O'Brady's, a fixture in the area with a loyal following. Business remains steady, but Brady said she can't plan for the future without knowing the fate of her restaurant as the $88 million highway project moves forward.

"Trying to run a business not knowing when you're going to close is ridiculous," she said.

Brady and WSDOT had discussed a scenario to keep O'Brady's at Dollars Corner, moving the restaurant's parking lot from the north side of the building to the west, leaving room for the expanded highway. But when Brady and her neighbor provided the cost estimate to make it happen, WSDOT balked at the amount.

"We don't think that was reasonable for the taxpayers," said Bart Gernhart, a regional engineer with WSDOT.

O'Brady's is only one of more than 170 residential and commercial parcels that WSDOT plans to purchase as part of the Highway 502 project to improve traffic flow and safety along the busy corridor. As of last month, almost half of those acquisitions remained incomplete.

The processes for homeowners and business owners don't follow exactly the same set of rules. In a residential case, there must be a new arrangement in place before someone is displaced. For businesses, that condition is not specifically spelled out.

In the O'Brady's case, WSDOT hopes the restaurant is able to relocate successfully, Gernhart said. But the state also has a responsibility to taxpayers, he said.

"It's not a blank checkbook, or open checkbook," Gernhart said.

Brady said she feels short-changed as other properties around her settle with better deals. This year, WSDOT purchased the old tavern property across Dollars Corner for $720,000, more than twice its 2011 assessed value of $350,000. The 0.19-acre parcel immediately behind O'Brady's sold in 2009 for $255,000.

Gernhart noted the initial O'Brady's offer was only for the section of property WSDOT would need for the highway project. If the state buys the entire property -- which WSDOT has said it is willing to do -- the purchase amount would likely be higher, he said.

Brady has looked at other possible places for her restaurant, but said she's hamstrung by an acquisition process that forces property owners into a bad situation -- in a bad economy on top of it. O'Brady's thrives largely because of its prime location, she said. It would compromise that success if it moved to another place just because it was available, she said.

"I'm not going to open a restaurant in a spot that's not a good location," Brady said.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.