By JEFF ST. PETER
Several Brookings-Harbor merchants believe recent appraisals of state-owned right of ways adjacent to their businesses are out of line with the real value and usage of the property.
The Oregon Department of Transportation Right of Ways Division recently completed the appraisals of 10 local businesses with frontage on U. S. 101. It resulted in major fee changes for use of the property.
In one case, the fee increase was nearly 400 percent.
Al Lightner, with ODOTs Right of Way Project Administration in Salem, said the appraisals are just part of the departments constitutionally-mandated responsibility to fulfill its mission.
The (Oregon) constitutional amendment, passed by the voters in May 1980, requires that highway funds be used for highways only, he said on Friday. It reinforced our mission of stewardship over the publics money and property.
It resulted in our being required to appraise right of way properties by fair market value for use of those highway properties.
Lightner said ODOT has no leeway in its appraisals because of this mandate.
We are tied to the standard of fair market value rather profoundly, he said. We have no choice.
Can we have any latitude? No, because of the frame of the law.
Lightner added that this policy affects the entire state, not just Brookings.
We have use permits and leases all around the state, he said. We find permits in our annual review that need appraisal.
Because of staffing, we cant do them all at once. This year it was about a dozen (in Brookings). Two years ago it was Salem and Polk County. Its a rolling audit kind of thing.
Gary Taylor, Region 3 Right of Way supervisor in Roseburg, whose office conducted the Brookings area appraisals, explained why the rates for most of the affected businesses went up significantly.
Previously, the property was on a permit for landscaping use only at $150 per year, he said on Monday. But the land had never been appraised before and converted to a lease for business use. And those leases are based on fair market value of the property.
It should have been converted before, but a manpower shortage has meant that appraisals are getting done a little bit at a time.
Taylor said the businesses with right of way land appraised were 101 Auto Sales, Appels Home Furnishings, Blue Star Gas, Brookings-Harbor Ford Mercury, Del-Cur Supply Co-op, Family Security Bank, Great American Smokehouse & Seafood Company, Harbor Inn Motel, Kemp Auto Sales, and Kens Auto & RV Repair.
Brooking-Harbor Ford Mercury took a big hit after the appraisals, according to owner Les Walker.
It is significantly more, he said on Monday.
We went from $150 a year land-use permit to a $486 per month lease.
We are also required to maintain the landscaping. Any improvements we want to make must be approved by ODOT in advance, and if the lease expires or isnt renewed, the improvements belong to the state.
Walker believes the methodology used in appraising the land is skewed.
The state, in my view, is appraising the land as if it was a large lot or acreage that could be used for commercial use, he said. In my case, its a 10- to 15-foot strip of land that I cant even build on.
It shouldnt have the same value.
Walker said ODOT initially left him with the impression that he was going to be able to purchase the right of way land, but now is being told it would only be a lease.
He did emphasize, that although he disagreed with the appraisal, that (ODOT) guys have been nothing but courteous and helpful, through the process.
Walker said he had no choice but to sign the lease because the use of the land in question a little less than half an acre is a vital part of his dealership. He uses the land to display vehicles and has made significant improvements to the property by adding landscaping, pavement and curbs, and lights. To reject the lease would be to lose the improvements and his visibility from U. S. 101.
Lee Myers, owner of Great American Smokehouse, was upset after finding out his $150 annual permit fee had become a $2,940 per year lease.
This is absolute insanity, he said on Monday. Theyre (ODOT) trying to see what they can pull, to see if they can get away with it.
Myers said his use of the right of way property includes a driveway and overflow parking, and he has already put in over $12,000 worth of improvements. He believes the land is being over-appraised.
We need to have the property assessed for its real value, Myers said. We cant build on it and we cant sell it.
Its a rip off, totally wrong.
Myers is concerned that the appraisals are just the beginning.
The whole idea is to keep people down, he said. I think (ODOT) is just trying to get their foot in the door. Next it will be everybody.
Its just one thing after another. They just gouge, gouge, gouge. It seems they want us out of business. Theyre just picking on businesses.
Appels Home Furnishings will now pay $995 per year for a right of way lease, instead of the $150 permit fee. Owner Leo Appel said the cost doesnt stop there.
Then theres the property taxes, which will probably run $400-500, he said on Tuesday. Im being charged about $1,500 for nine feet of property. Appels uses the strip of land for customer parking.
Appel feels he was backed into a corner on the lease by ODOT.
I had to sign the lease and have it postmarked by May 15, he said. There was no option.
When I asked ODOT for some room for negotiation, they politely said no.
Appel echoed both Walker and Myers when talking about the appraisal value.
I think its way overpriced, he said. Especially since usage of the land is so limited.
Appel said he understood the state has financial problems, but he feels the strain is greater at home.
I know the state of Oregon is hurting (for money), he said, but why are they taking it out on the little guys.
This is affecting how I take care of my family and employees. Thats $1,500 less in bonuses I can pay my employees.
I think the state is ripping us off.
The business owners have appealed to the regions state legislators for help.
During a recent town hall meeting in Brookings, Sen. Ken Messerle (R-Coos Bay) and Rep. Wayne Krieger (R-Gold Beach) promised to look into the matter with ODOT.
As of Monday, both Messerle and Krieger had spoken with ODOT officials and were awaiting a report from the transportation department.