The Democratic nominee for PWC Board of County Supervisors Chairman, Sharon Pandak apparently has quite a colorful past as a county atttorney, and I expect this record is going to get some play over the next couple of months. At least I hope it will, as it’s pretty informative of the kind of county government we would expect to see from her if she were elected.
It seems that back in 1991, when Sharon was trying to manage the property acquisition process for the expansion of the Prince William County Parkway, she deliberately tried to cheat homeowners out of a fair-market price for their property. A lot of homeowners don’t have the financial resources to fight an eminent domain seizure, and a savvy county attorney with the nearly limitless power of government behind her can really take a big bite out of the hides of an average property owner who is reluctant to go to war with the county. Sure, she probably saved the county a pile of money in the process, but doing so by unfairly lowballing the settlements paid to homeowners is not the way to do it.
Here’s what the Washington Post had to say about this at the time:
SOME PR. WILLIAM LANDOWNERS FUME AT COUNTY’S FIRE-SALE BIDS
November 29, 1991
Author: Brooke A. Masters; Washington Post Staff Writer
With three major roads to build on a tight budget, Prince William County officials are trying to wring every advantage from the slumping real estate market by buying rights of way at bargain prices, and they are irking local landowners in the process
From the Prince William Parkway near Dale City to the Route 234 Bypass near Manassas, property owners along the routes are fuming, contending that county officials have offered them less for their property than outside appraisers — and sometimes the tax assessors — say it is worth.
The county says that property owners who don’t like the offers can get their own appraisals and take the county to court.
Owners of small parcels said they felt bewildered and victimized by the county’s hard-nosed negotiating.
“They very nearly killed me. They had me under tremendous strain,” said Rosie Shaffer, 61, who saw the county condemn her home and piano store of 35 years to make room for the Prince William Parkway.
Tumbling real estate prices pushed down the value of Shaffer’s 1.8 acres even as she took the county to court to ask for more money, and a jury awarded her $750,000, nearly 35 percent less than she had hoped to get. On top of that, more than 20 pianos rusted in her garage while she looked for a new store site. “That property was worth a small fortune, not what the county paid,” she said.
Negotiations have gone much more smoothly with large landowners who hire attorneys and their own appraisers as a matter of course, county officials and opposing attorneys said.
In the last two years, the county has purchased 51 parcels and spent $17.3 million of the $31.8 million budgeted for land purchases. Prices were set in court in only five cases, said Transportation Division Chief Thomas Blaser, adding that the county is trying to buy an additional 153 pieces of land.
Unlike those in most area jurisdictions, Prince William officials are pushing ahead with bond-funded road projects to try to unclog the county’s inadequate road system, and they argue that their first duty is to make sure they are not wasting tax money.
“I would rather be criticized for getting property too cheaply than paying too much,” said Director of Public Works Robert W. Wilson.
State law requires public entities to give landowners “fair-market value” when taking needed land, but the land buyers for different jurisdictions interpret that phrase differently. The Virginia Department of Transportation and Fairfax County both base their first offer on an outside appraisal, and the state agency permits the property owner to accompany the appraiser.
Prince William County Attorney Sharon Pandak defines fair-market value as whatever price a willing buyer and a willing seller agree upon. The county usually commissions an outside appraisal, but it may begin negotiating with an offer beneath that price and may refuse access to the appraisal, officials said.
Those tactics have drawn criticism from Supervisor William J. Becker (R-Brentsville). Small landowners expect the county to offer them a fair price and usually cannot afford to get their own appraisal, argued Becker, whose district includes newly aligned Davis Ford Road.
“We should consider making an offer based on the appraisal for low-cost acquisitions,” he said.
The head of Prince William’s right-of-way acquisition program, Nina Matthews, quit last month, publicly citing disagreements over the appraisal process. She would not comment for this article.
Prince William begins with low offers, according to county officials, in part because county officials believe the new tax assessments coming in January will be lower, and with so few sales going on, accurate appraisals are hard to find.
“There are no land sales, and there is a lot of land out there for sale where there are no buyers,” Wilson said.
But the low offers infuriate landowners who can’t understand why their land is worth less than the figure used in determining their taxes.
Ed Menefee has been told the county wants to buy 547 square feet of his property. He calculates that the county’s first offer came to 85 cents a square foot, even though the 1991 assessment was $6.25 a square foot. The county has since raised its offer to $2.93 a square foot.
“If that’s what they think my property is worth, why don’t they adjust my tax bill down?” asked Menefee, who complained to the Board of County Supervisors.
Most of the current fuss has been raised by homeowners who resent the county’s treatment of them over a few thousand dollars.
“The county is not used to dealing on this level. They are used to millions of dollars,” said Doug Mussey, who was angered when county officials referred to his prize holly and ornamental fruit trees as “little shrubs” and offered him $2,650 for 1,088 square feet of property and construction damages for 1,900 additional square feet. He hired his own appraiser, who valued the loss at $7,480. He and the county are still negotiating.
“In the long run, it is detrimental to the county . . . if we have to go to court,” he said. “How much more tax dollars are going to be wasted than if they offered a fair price . . . . When you misjudge the intelligence of the homeowner, it’s a tremendous mistake.
I have also heard some stories, which I have not been able to confirm, about those who did stand up and fight instead of rolling over and hope to bring them to BVBL readers soon. Stay tuned.
The opinions expressed here are solely the views of the author, and not representative of the position of any organization, political party, doughnut shop, knitting guild, or waste recycling facility, but may be correctly attributed to the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. If anything in the above article has offended you, please click here to receive an immediate apology.
You can follow the discussion through the Comments feed.