SANTA FE, N.M. — Copyright © 2012 Albuquerque Journal
A condemnation lawsuit that began with the discovery of an illegal billboard has ended in a $55,400 out-of-court settlement between the state Department of Transportation and House Speaker Ben Lujan.
It closes the book on a legal battle that also involved a public records lawsuit that cost taxpayers an estimated $250,000 in attorney fees and costs.
The commercial billboard stood on land Lujan owned south of Española — property the state needed for the $68 million widening of a five-mile stretch of U.S. 84-285.
The condemnation case had been pending in state District Court since 2009, after Lujan refused the state’s offer to pay about $59,900 for less than an acre of his land.
He also sought compensation for the loss of income from the billboard, which the DOT ordered removed.
The DOT argued the billboard had been on the Lujan property for years without a valid permit and therefore he wasn’t entitled to compensation for lost profits.
The Albuquerque Journal filed a separate lawsuit after the administration of Gov. Bill Richardson withheld public records showing that top DOT managers had worked behind the scenes to try to allow Lujan to keep his billboard.
Under the condemnation agreement reached this spring between Lujan and the DOT, the state didn’t pay damages related to the billboard removal. And Lujan had to pay his own attorney fees and pay for removing the billboard.
However, the Santa Fe Democrat will also be allowed to keep more of his land, which had been condemned for right of way for the highway project.
And he received a slightly higher price per square foot than originally offered. The appraised value went up because the case dragged on so long. In the end, the state paid Lujan $55,431.
The DOT paid about $24,462 for its attorney fees and costs related to the condemnation. The Inspection of Public Records Act case was settled after Richardson left office and after sworn testimony from a number of witnesses and a judge’s ruling favorable to the newspaper.
Lujan is retiring from the Legislature due to ill health.
His attorney, Frank Bond, had no comment on the settlement. But in an August 2009 interview, Bond told the Journal that his client intended to seek compensation for the loss of the billboard.
DOT Adjutant Secretary Mike McEntee told the Journal recently that the settlement ended up saving taxpayers money.
The price per square foot “ended up being slightly higher than our original offer because the original appraisal had ‘timed out’ if you will as it was over 6 months old when we went to mediation,” he added.
During the mediation process, an appraisal on comparable land nearby came in slightly higher than what the DOT originally proposed paying Lujan, McEntee said. The final price came to $3.30 per square foot.
But the savings occurred because the final amount of land needed for the project dropped by 8 percent, he said.
Lujan’s billboard “was removed at the expense of Mr. Lujan and the DOT did not otherwise compensate him for the billboard,” McEntee added.
The Journal’s lawsuit, filed in April 2009, alleged the DOT illegally withheld public records that should have been produced under the law.
The documents, which the Journal obtained elsewhere, included internal emails showing how “upper management” at the DOT considered giving Lujan a retroactive billboard permit. There was also a plan to include the billboard in a construction/maintenance easement, which would have spared its removal. Neither option was ultimately deemed feasible, DOT records showed.
The $250,000 tab in the public records case went to pay lawyers for the newspaper and the outside law firm hired by the state to defend the case.
Meanwhile, Pojoaque Pueblo officials agreed late last year to the DOT’s request to buy nearly 14 acres of pueblo land for an interchange to be built south of Lujan’s property.
The interchange is expected to allow easier access between the newly widened U.S. 84-285 and new frontage roads.
Pueblo officials originally sought about $3 million for the property but settled for $349,900, a sum much closer to the DOT’s original offer three years ago. Pueblo officials didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The southern end of the project remained unfinished while the DOT tried to negotiate the land sale with the pueblo in recent years.
The DOT plans to seek bids on the interchange construction this summer, McEntee said.
Barney Meyer, of Meyer’s Steel, said his family also sold land for the road project and received about the same price per square foot as was paid to Lujan.
As for the interchange, Meyer said, “I think it’ll help things as far as access and business, absolutely.”