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Holdout holding up Vancouver’s I-205 interchange project

City might condemn property to move ahead with road work

By , Columbian staff writer
3 Photos
Cars drive past 10605 SE Mill Plain Blvd, which the city has voted to condemned to accommodate a safety corridor, on Wednesday morning, May 15, 2019.
Cars drive past 10605 SE Mill Plain Blvd, which the city has voted to condemned to accommodate a safety corridor, on Wednesday morning, May 15, 2019. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A Vancouver road project that would require cooperation from 13 private property owners hit a speed bump when one holdout owner declined to sell part of their parcel to the city.

In response, the Vancouver City Council unanimously voted Monday to authorize a condemnation process for the property at 10605 S.E. Mill Plain Blvd.

Condemnation is a formality, said Streets and Transportation Manager Ryan Lopossa. The city will continue to negotiate in good faith with United Merchant Corp., the company that owns the parcel, in hopes of buying the land they need to complete the project.

“We are confident that we’re going to be able to see that one through,” Lopossa said. “That being said, we still want to go through this process just in case those negotiations break down.”

The project

Lopossa said the road project aims to ease the snarling traffic that plagues the Interstate 205 interchange from Mill Plain Boulevard, helping to accommodate the 39,000 cars that navigate the intersection on an average day. The biggest part of the plan involves extending the southbound I-205 onramp.

“If you’re traveling east on Mill Plain and you want to go south on I-205, sometimes you’ll get caught up in the congestion of other travellers also traveling east. We’re going to make it possible to get onto that ramp a little bit sooner, and hopefully that’ll get you out of that queue,” Lopossa said.

The construction also involves building a short, extra leg at the intersection of Mill Plain Boulevard and Northeast 104th Avenue, currently a “T” intersection. The extra southbound leg would loop around and connect with Southeast 105th Avenue.

“That will improve circulation within the neighborhoods,” Lopossa said.

On top of those two major changes, the Mill Plain project will involve a few minor improvements to enhance lighting and pedestrian safety. If all goes according to plan, the city will solicit bids from contractors in August and break ground in the fall.

All told, it’s expected to cost $4.6 million — $400,000 in local funds and $4.2 million from two federal grants.

However, that $4.2 million comes with a “use-it-or-lose-it” stipulation, Lopossa said. If city leaders can’t show that they’ve secured right-of-way from property owners, construction can’t move forward and the city will miss out on the millions in federal money.

Defining the terms

By starting the process of condemning the holdout property, the city has a strategy “in their hip pocket” to keep from missing out on grant funding in case negotiations with the property owner fall through, Lopossa said.

“Right-of-way acquisition” is legalese for securing access to private land for public transportation projects. Sometimes it means working with a landowner to establish a rental rate, based on square footage, to temporarily access part of their property. In this case, the city’s looking at permanent acquisition to make room for new roads — buying the land.

For the Mill Plain project, Lopossa said his staff started reaching out to the 13 property owners about two years ago to start securing right-of-way. For some parcels, that meant buying the entire lot. On others, the city just needed to buy a strip of land to complete the road work.

The cost of buying all that land is wrapped into the $4.6 million budget for the project.

“First, you define what right-of-way needs you have for a project. You do appraisals, you get those appraisals reviewed, and that informs essentially the starting point for negotiating those property purchases,” Lopossa said.

For the final parcel owned by United Merchant Corp., the city needs a 15-foot strip of land, Lopossa said. The existing structure on the property could stay, he added.

Sam Salti, head of United Merchant Corp. and owner of the property in question, did not return The Columbian’s multiple requests for comment.

Lopossa said Thursday that he’d negotiated again with Salti on Tuesday. He said he remained optimistic that they could work out a deal before the condemnation process goes any further.

If negotiations do fall through, condemning the property gives the city another option, called “Possession and Use.” It’s what it sounds like: The city has the right to possess and use a condemned property, if “the Owners’ real estate described herein is required by the agency for immediate construction of a roadway project” and “the agency affirms that any delay in its construction program is contrary to the public interest,” according to a boilerplate document on the process from the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Columbian staff writer

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