York County Jury Awards $17.25 Mil. in Eminent Domain Case

August 20, 2008
The Legal Intelligencer

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A York County developer unhappy with the money he was paid by the county for the condemnation of his 79 acres was successful in getting a $2 million payoff upped to $17.25 million, with a stop in between.

The jury award of more than $17 million was the largest of the year for York County, according to a supervisor in the prothonotary's office. Attorneys involved in the case said they were told it would be tough to get their asking price out of what are traditionally conservative juries in York.

An appraiser hired by York County to place a value on Peter Alecxih's land that the county wanted to turn into a public park gave a price tag of $2 million, according to court documents.

Alecxih, through his company Lauxmont Holdings, purchased the land for $1.75 million with the intention of building 51 custom, luxury homes with price tags between $1 million and $8 million, according to his attorney, Herbert Bass of Fox Rothschild.

Alecxih purchased the raw land in April 2002 and spent about $200,000 in excavations and made arrangements to have public water and sewer brought to the site. He also had local approvals for the subdivisions, Bass said.

The land was known as Highpoint because it literally had the highest elevation in the county and provided a view of the Susquehanna River. Alecxih sold two of the lots for $600,000 and $350,000 respectively, according to court documents. Those prices were just for the land, Bass said.

As is customary with eminent domain cases, Alecxih took his complaints over the $2 million to a board of viewers to determine the fair price of the condemned land. The board was comprised of Chairman and attorney James A. Holtzer, Thompson J. McCullough and Paul Dellinger. Timothy Ruth of Stock & Leader represented the county and Michael W. Davis of Barley Snyder represented Alecxih before the board of viewers.

The board found in October 2006 the value of the land "increased significantly" between the time of purchase and the condemnation in 2004, according to its report. Alecxih was asking for $16.97 million and the board ultimately valued the property at $10.5 million.

Both sides appealed the ruling and a trial was set in York County Common Pleas Court.

The viewers had said they were persuaded by testimony that the values Alecxih placed for each parcel of land within the 79 acres were accurate and that the land would only continue to increase in value, according to their report. Their award factored in the value of each lot as testified to by Alecxih compared to the cost of marketing and improvements and absorption, the report stated.

Before trial, the county switched lawyers and hired William Bresnahan of Hollinshead Mendelson Bresnahan & Nixon in Pittsburgh.

He had three new appraisers come in to value the property before trial, with all three coming in somewhere between $7.5 million and $7.95 million, Bass said. At Bresnahan's suggestion, Bass said, the county upped its payment to Alecxih from the $2 million to $7.5 million, paying him an additional $5.5 million.

At trial in Lauxmont Holdings v. County of York , the county had the three appraisers testify regarding what value they placed on the land. Alecxih testified that he felt the value was $17 million and two appraisers testified on his behalf that the value was $16.5 and $16.25 million, respectively, Bass said.

There was a dispute at trial as to whether Alecxih should be allowed to have three non-appraiser experts testify as to the value of the land. Bass said a recent condemnation case allowed a non-appraiser to testify as a "qualified valuation expert" as long as the person had familiarity with that type of property at issue.

The trial judge, Keith B. Quigley, allowed Bass to put on the stand a banker and two real estate developers to speak to the value of the land in terms of Alecxih's improvements and future plans for development. The banker valued the land somewhere between $16 million and $17 million, a developer from York put a $17.75 million price tag on the property and a Lancaster developer valued it at $17.7 million, Bass said.

At closing, he had asked the jury for $17 million and after an hour and a half of deliberations, the 12-member jury unanimously rendered a verdict of $17.25 million.

"When they left the jury box [after giving the verdict], they were all smiles," Bass said. "They just seemed to be very happy."

On top of the verdict, Bass said Alecxih was awarded delay damages of about $3 million. After taking into consideration the $7.5 million he already received from the county, Alecxih will get an additional $12.75 million as a result of the jury verdict and delay damages.

Bass said the county said right after trial that it would not appeal the verdict. Bresnahan was not immediately available for comment by the time of publication.

The jury was selected July 7, and they began deliberations July 16, coming back that day with the verdict.