City Hall may pay as much as 90% less than controversial estimates;  eminent domain move surprises Kespohl
COLUMBIA, 2/9/13 (Beat Byte) -- A City of Columbia purchase price estimate for a vacant lot on the corner of Burnam St. and Providence Road is as much as 90% inflated, public works director John Glascock told the Columbia City Council Monday night.

The lot is one of nine properties the city plans to buy under Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the so-called Providence Improvement Plan (PIP) near the Grasslands neighborhood.  
City Hall will use eminent domain to acquire any properties it cannot buy voluntarily, Glascock explained, taking Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl by surprise.
Mr. Kespohl seemed unaware he had voted to approve eminent domain at a previous meeting.
Glascock's testimony capped an end-of-night Council discussion filled with surprises that included two Council members bashing a Historic Preservation Commission meeting and Mayor Bob McDavid requesting Providence Road/Grasslands residents who oppose the controversial road-widening plan come forth with their own alternative.   PIP would demolish eight stately homes on Providence bordering the Grasslands neighborhood. 

Council members approved Phase 1 in late 2012.   With the vacant lot, Glascock's office estimated the two-phase property acquisition cost at $3.6 million, or $400,000 for each property. Property easements -- priced at a whopping $600,000 per acre -- add even more to estimates Glascock now claims are wildly inflated.
"We normally do appraisals, after we get the road designed. We pay appraised value," Glascock told Council members, after 6th Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe asked for a cost breakdown. "One house is currently for sale for $279,000 and I know the lot probably appraises for somewhere in the $30-40,000 range," Glascock added. "It's not an exorbitant amount."
"So the empty lot is not going to go for $400,000 so I won't need a report on that," Hoppe responded.
Owned by Grasslands Neighborhood Association (GNA) president Robbie Price, past president John Ott, and two other partners, the vacant lot has added controversy to an already charged situation. Mr. Ott and Mr. Price designed and championed the demolition plan. Their lot is a lynchpin in that plan.
Neighborhood associations are arms of city government, with duly elected leaders officially approved to represent neighbors before the City Council.
Glascock did not explain why the city released estimates that are as much as 90% inflated. The estimates have been publicly available for months; were used as part of City Council staff reports; and have fueled public angst about PIP's high cost. The roughly $7 million project price tag was a centerpiece of the recent 5th Ward special Council election.
Also fueling angst: the use of condemnation via eminent domain. Glascock confirmed his office has the Council-approved power to condemn property during Phase 1, catching Mr. Kespohl off guard.
"My understanding is that no homes on Providence in the Grasslands will be purchased until they voluntarily come up for sale," Mr. Kespohl told Glascock.
"No. We asked for permission to condemn them," Glascock said.
"You did?" Mr. Kespohl asked.
(Glascock photo by John O'Connor/KOMU, Creative Commons license)