Kay Kohler inherited her Snohomish County family farm, which had been in her family since the 1930s. These four and a half acres remained largely undeveloped. Over the years, the area built up as Snohomish County’s population grew. Neighborhoods and apartment complexes eventually surrounded Kohler’s family farm. Kay Kohler’s family attempted to get permits to locate an animal shelter or other developments on the property, but Snohomish County always turned them down.
In late 2008, Snohomish County approached Kay Kohler because they wanted to expand the road next to her property. They needed to use some of her land for the road expansion and other utility requirements like a retaining pond. In 2008, the Snohomish County Assessor valued Kay Kohler’s property at $718,000 (Snohomish County Assessor valuation linked Kohler Docs1 ). After using three independent appraisers to value the property, Snohomish County determined a valuation of $404,000 and offered to pay Kay Kohler that amount if she signed a “Possession and Use” agreement (linked Kohler Docs2 ). She agreed and received the payment. Although the specific contract Kay Kohler signed was a bit odd, her situation was unremarkable up until that point.
Almost every local government in Washington State has used eminent domain at some time, and there are commonly accepted practices for using eminent domain when expanding roads and making other infrastructure improvements.
However, Kay Kohler’s situation took a strange turn when Snohomish County decided they wanted most of their money back, claiming they had overpaid for the property (despite their independent appraisals and the appraisal by the Snohomish County Assessor’s office). Yet they still wanted to take Kay Kohler’s land.
Even worse, they sued Kay Kohler and got a judgment against her requiring her to return the money they had paid for her property. Kay Kohler lost her appeal, and Snohomish County has since bulldozed much of her land, installed a huge storm water retention pond on her property, and diverted much of the local storm water onto the property. Meanwhile, Kohler lost her property and the money she received for it. Due to the legal costs of trying to defend herself, she has nothing left but a lien and judgment against her.
Unfortunately, Kay Kohler may not be alone in experiencing this type of situation. We have seen other local governments in Washington State use these “Possession and Use” agreements. We do not yet know the extent to which local governments use these agreements as a “bait and switch” tactic to acquire property through eminent domain at a lower cost. However, we strongly urge property owners not to sign these types of agreements with local government – at all. In addition, we strongly recommend that no property owner sign ANY agreement with a local government without having a qualified attorney carefully review that agreement. Kay Kohler’s case demonstrates that property owners can’t trust government to be honest on their own.
If you are interested, you can contact the Snohomish County Council here