City council tables vote on Martin property condemnation

Published on Wed, Dec 14, 2011 by Jeremy Schwartz

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After initially approving condemnation proceedings on property in east Blaine in October, Blaine City Council has decided to take more time to study the issue after being required to authorize condemnation a second time.

Due to an address error, city council had to vote again on an ordinance allowing the city to acquire utility easements on two parcels of private property north of H Street between Harvey Road and the proposed Grandis Pond development. City council originally voted 6-1, with council member John Liebert opposed, to acquire the easements on October 10.

The Robert D. Martin Family Company owns the property, but the notice that the October 10 ordinance was passed was
mistakenly sent to Robert Martin’s personal address, not the company’s legal address, city attorney Jon Sitkin said. The mistake meant city council had to re-approve the ordinance with the correct address. Sitkin’s law firm paid the expense of republishing the ordinance with the address change included.

However, after hearing from the company’s attorney and Whatcom County Council member Barbara Brenner, council agreed to delay the vote until alternatives to acquiring the easements on the Martin property could be studied. Blaine public works staff have proposed to carve a 30-foot-wide, 2,700-foot-long corridor through the two properties to allow sewer lines to east Blaine to be built.

Bryan Page, the attorney representing Robert D. Martin Family, LLC, urged council to vote against acquiring the utility easements through eminent domain. He said a utility corridor through the 144 acres the Martin family owns would negatively affect the property’s value and could damage wetlands in the area.

“Eminent domain is one of the most frightening powers a government can have,” Page said.

Brenner said the vote wasn’t just about the effect on property values; it was an issue of public trust. Brenner said she had always admired Blaine officials for being receptive to the needs of the individual, so a vote to approve the condemnation would also damage the city’s reputation as a supporter of individual property rights.

“Martin may be the little guy, but he’s the one who’s really important because there are many more little guys than there are big guys,” Brenner said.

City council member Paul Greenough proposed delaying the city council’s vote in order to compare the costs of running utilities through the Martin property versus building them on H Street.

“We need to present an objective, compelling case for why we are [seeking condemnation],” Greenough said.

City manager Gary Tomsic agreed with Greenough but said city staff would need access to the Martin property in order to conduct the study properly. The Martin family has historically disallowed public works staff from setting foot on the property.

“If the city were allowed on the Martin property, staff would have a better understanding of what could be done,” Tomsic said.

Acting Blaine public works director Bill Bullock said the utility route through the Martin property was chosen so as to allow future water lines to connect to the city’s water tank on Harvey Road. The route would also allow gravity-flow sewer lines to D Street to connect with the main sewer line.

A sewer line along H Street would have to climb a hill in order to return sewage to the city’s treatment plant, requiring the construction of a pump station, Bullock explained. An H Street sewer line would be nearly three times longer than needed for the Martin easement and would affect at least 30 property owners along H Street during construction, he added.

The city officials would need to either purchase numerous rights of way along H Street or place the sewer line directly under the road, Bullock explained. The recent improvements to the H Street hill section of the road cost approximately $1.9 million, so digging up most of H Street to install a sewer line would cost at least that much, he said.

However the utility lines reach east Blaine, Tomsic pointed out that county growth management regulations will not allow Blaine to expand anywhere else until east Blaine is filled in. Tomsic expressed regret that the city annexed the east Blaine area in the first place, but said that step cannot now be undone.

“The east Blaine area is where the city has to grow,” Tomsic said.