Buying the farm

The Port and its neighbors fight over property seizures for the third runway.

Pike Place Market farmer Frank Genzale stomps around rows and rows of basil, tomatoes, and shell beans in his mother's Burien yard. This unlikely patch of verdancy is his only farm now, because his real farm—the one that has been in his family for three generations and has supplied the produce that has made the Genzales a backbone of the market—sits behind a fence erected by the Port of Seattle. The Genzale Farm is one of some 500 homes and businesses in the path of Sea-Tac Airport's planned third runway, the 225-acre, $773-million expansion that the Port is undertaking to ease airport traffic.

Steam is practically pouring from Genzale's ears as he relates his family's fight to get a decent price for the 4-acre property complete with a two-bedroom house and barn. Even though the farm could be subdivided into 14 separate lots, the Port's initial offer came in at $200,000—barely enough to buy one house these days. "They wanted to lowball the whole damn thing," Genzale fumes.

A gray-haired, angular 52 year old with a sloping walk and a skip-the-bullshit manner, he displays newspaper clippings from through the years about his family and its farm as he warms up to the tale of his interactions with the Port. "When we first sat down to talk with them, we told them, 'Look, we don't really want the money, what we want is a farm,'"—meaning a replacement farm.

Even if the Port had been willing to find one, and it says it made a stab at it, the task was not so easy. The Genzale farm was one of the last within an easy commute of Seattle and Pike Place Market. The culprit is not only urban sprawl but Sea-Tac's prior developments. Its second runway claimed half of the original 8-plus acres that Frank's grandfather and namesake settled in the late '20s.

Further complicating any replacement effort, the remaining acres had special attributes: a stream that provided free water, a lower ground of rich, black peat soil, and an upper ground of quick-drying sandy loam that could be planted early in the season. The Genzales talk about the produce that the farm yielded in a way you don't hear much anymore. "Look at those carrots," Frank's mother Ann says, ogling over a snapshot of a gargantuan homegrown bunch the way other people ogle over baby pictures.

The Genzales' pride in their farm undoubtedly increased their ire at receiving a $200,000 offer. While the Port's appraiser maintained that farmland in King County was selling for the pitiful price of $10,000 an acre, Frank Genzale says he hasn't seen anything comparable for under a million dollars.

Many in this community by the airport would readily believe that the Port is trying to shortchange the Genzales. The Port has been gobbling up properties for the past two years now, creating phantom neighborhoods full of still, vacated houses waiting for the bulldozer. It has made enemies as it has done so, worsening an already bad reputation in area where the third runway project is considered to be ill conceived and mismanaged.

"What they do in order to keep costs down is to beat up on people," says Des Moines activist Jeanne Moeller. "It's the most out- of-control bureaucracy I've ever seen."

The widespread perception is that the Port takes advantage of a situation in which property owners have little leverage. They can't sell to anyone else, given the third runway plans. And while the Port is required by federal law to negotiate over price, the port can, if the parties can't agree, seize the property through a legal condemnation process. To date, the Port has filed for 50 condemnations, a little less than 10 percent of the 466 parcels it has appraised so far.

The Port knows "full well that the people they're dealing with have no option," says Stuart Creighton, a Normandy Park city councilman.

The consequences have been most dismal for the group of folks who went through the process earliest, according to Ramona Gale, chairperson of a group called Westside Citizens for Fair Acquisition (for the west side of the airport). While Gale makes a point of saying her group is not anti-Port and exists merely to inform property owners of their options, she can't help herself from observing that the first offers "came in very, very low."

Gale points to charts made by her group that track every sale. In August 1997, for instance, the Port offered $112,000 for one spacious three-bedroom house, with almost 3,000 square footage. The seller accepted. So did many in the beginning, Gale says, because they didn't think they had any choice and didn't realize how hard it would be to find a replacement home at the same cost.

People did better as they started exercising their right to a second appraisal and, if that proved unacceptable, mediation and litigation. Only seven months after the $112,000 deal, the Port initially offered $150,000 for another three-bedroom house and eventually agreed to $209,000—$97,000 more than the August seller got. That seems like a lot, even taking into account possible differences in the places and escalating real estate costs.

The Port insists it has not been unfair—far from it. "We feel we've bent over backwards for folks," says Bob Parker, the Port's spokesperson on the airport. As he describes it, the Port has looked for ways to give people more money without violating federal guidelines that require it to offer no more (or less) than fair market value. "If somebody has trees on their land, we figured out that we can pay 'em for timber," he says. The Port also pays $400 towards a second appraisal if requested, moving costs, and up to $25,500 to buy a comparable home.

He and Pat Proulx, who as the Port's senior acquisition specialist helps manage the project, chalk up discontent to the sentimental value people have for their homes and their community in a place where roots run deep. The average homeowner in the Port's buyout area—once a magnet for immigrant Italian farmers—has been there for 22 years. Many are senior citizens. Proulx says it is one of the most "emotional" projects she has worked on in the 24 years she been acquiring property for the Port.

Contesting a predominantly negative view, the Port shows off a dozen letters it has from people expressing their appreciation for the way they have been treated during their buyout. It also supplies a contact number for two satisfied sellers, Bob and Gail Thorson, who believe that the nearly $150,000 the Port gave them for their old four-bedroom farmhouse (including relocation costs) was 25 percent more than they would have gotten on the open market. "It was unbelievable," Bob Thorson says.

Yet Gale of the Westside Citizens for Fair Acquisition says that the Port generally began making more reasonable offers only after people started questioning its figures. "It's certainly been a fight to get prices up," she says.

Probably nobody has fought harder for their rights than the Genzales. Told that their property had more worth as ground for single family homes than as a farm, they went through the time-consuming and expensive process of preparing the land to be developed—knowing the whole time that the land would simply be torn up for the runway. Just as on a smaller scale others have been painting their homes and refurbishing unfinished rooms before the Port's appraiser comes, the Genzales spent $20,000 to draw up plans for road, water, and sewer systems and filed for the necessary permits with the city.

As Frank Genzale says, "The whole thing is a farce." Meanwhile, in March the Port condemned the property, even while negotiations continued. As recently as two weeks ago, talks were at a standstill and the matter was set to go to court. Then suddenly, only a day after Genzale was stomping around his mother's yard, his family and the Port reached a settlement. Neither will give the exact amount, but it is at least three times the Port's initial offer. Frank Genzale is less than enthusiastic, saying he still has to find another farm. But it's clear that he's one of the lucky ones in this process.

A question he posed lingers on. "Why does the Port want to nickel-and-dime us to death?" he asks, when its project is already massively over budget. The Port currently puts projected cost overruns at $186 million (opponents say they're more like $556 million, using an early incomplete estimate as a starting point), and the Port doesn't even have the necessary permits to start building yet.

Ironically, the Port's Bob Parker asks a similar question: "Why would we deliberately try to offer less than a house is worth?" he says, speaking in broad terms about the buyout. "So what if we saved $20,000? Twenty thousand dollars is not a significant amount of savings for us to be worth trying to harm somebody."

But remember that $97,000 difference between what two property owners got, one who contested and one who accepted the Port's initial offer. Multiply that by the 500 properties the Port has to buy and you get $48.5 million. Even by the Port's standards, that's a sizable chunk of change.

 
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