As rail work heads into Honolulu’s urban core, more landowners are venting their frustrations over how the city acquires the property it needs to build the elevated transit line.

The issue flared up again Tuesday, when City Council members weighed whether to advance condemnation proceedings on 26 parcels stretching from Iwilei to Ala Moana.

The problem, say some property owners, is that their negotiations with the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, which oversees rail land acquisition, aren’t done.  In some cases, the land-purchase talks have barely started because HART officials haven’t provided updated appraisals.

The guideway has risen in Waipahu, but rail officials continue to work to acquire land needed to build the line heading into Honolulu’s urban core. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

HART is “deciding to file a lawsuit against the landowners to take the property before the city even knows what the value of that property is,” said Mark Murakami, an attorney for local real estate holders Howard Hughes Corp. and Victoria Ward Ltd.

Murakami not only argued that the condemnation moves by HART are premature, but also that they violate the federal land-acquisition process the city agreed to follow when it accepted federal dollars for rail. The negotiations must reach an impasse first before the agency can take that step, he said.

Another landowner facing rail condemnation, Servco Pacific, has seen its negotiations with HART restart five times “from square one” since 2014 because of turnover at the agency and its real estate consultants, according to Casey Ching, who serves as the automotive company’s vice president for corporate properties.

Ching said the constant start-and-stop has left Servco with significant legal-, architectural- and design-related costs. He didn’t know off-hand how much, however.

Rail Officials: Need To Stay On Track

For years, rail officials have said their move to preemptively launch condemnation proceedings against property owners is prudent and necessary to help ensure that construction stays on schedule. If talks with the landowners go awry, HART won’t have to start the months-long condemnation proceedings from square one.

Furthermore, if HART only launched the condemnation proceedings once negotiations collapsed, then by the time the process wraps up the appraisal would be outdated, or “stale.” Then, HART would have to start all over again, they say.

Abbey Mayer, HART’s director for planning, permitting and right-of-way, repeated the argument Tuesday and said the agency is properly following federal land-acquisition procedures. Rick Rail, an outside attorney for HART based in California, told the council that as long as the city eventually follows the appraisal and negotiations process, it’s legal to start the condemnation process early.

In other words, the two processes can happen concurrently.

Property owners along the rail line have complained in recent years that HART’s filing early for condemnation gives the city unfair leverage in negotiations. Kim-Anh Nguyen, president and CEO for the Blood Bank of Hawaii, described the situation in 2016 as “living under a gun.”

On Tuesday, Murakami said that rail’s schedule shouldn’t factor into the decision to pursue condemnation early.

“The federal process doesn’t want landowners to face coercive effects of condemnation power when they make their decision on whether to sell or not,” he said.

Still, acting as the Executive Matters and Legal Affairs Committee, the council members opted Tuesday to advance the condemnation resolutions to the council’s general meeting next week.

Out of the 224 properties needed for Oahu’s 20-mile rail line, about 60 parcels have faced eminent domain (condemnation) proceedings so far, HART reports. Eight of those cases have gone to court, and only one went to trial. The trial, against Honolulu Hardwoods owner Bryan Hoernig, was settled before the jury could reach a decision.

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