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Victory for Property Owner in Unusual Condemnation Case

The City of Harrisburg placed a municipal water well on undeveloped property owned by the Defendant property owner, Ms. Leigh. Shortly thereafter, the City discovered that they placed the well on her property but they did nothing. Several years later Ms. Leigh decided to sell the property and her broker discovered the well and approached the City with the situation. The City responded to her discovery of the well by suing her for adverse possession of her property, instead of offering to pay her fair market value of her property. The City lost and she won an ejectment action – which resulted in the trial Court opinion that the City was not entitled to legal possession or any interest in the property and ordering the City to vacate the property and decommission the well by September 1.

Months later, on a Friday, August 28, the City offered to purchase her property for $7,425. When she rejected their offer, they filed an emergency condemnation proceeding the following Tuesday, September 2. The dates here are important.

Ms. Leigh’s position at trial was that, as a matter of law, as of September 2, (one day after the well was to have been decommissioned) Ms. Leigh owned the well because the trial court’s judgment specifically held that the City had no legal right to Ms. Leigh’s property and were required to decommission the well by September 1st , which had not occurred. The trial court rejected Ms. Leigh’s legal argument and Ms. Leigh received only compensation for the land and not for the well.

Ms. Leigh appealed to the Oregon Court of Appeals, which agreed that the ejectment judgment conclusively established that Ms. Leigh was the owner of the property, including its improvements. Accordingly, she was entitled to compensation for the value of the property, as improved. A public body that takes private property for public use must pay the property owner “just compensation”. OR Const, Art I § 18. The Court of Appeals held that the prior judgment conclusively held that the City was “wrongfully withholding possession of the Property”, and therefore, the value of the property was measured as of September 2, 2008 – the date the condemnation action was commenced and the property included compensation for the well because the well had not been decommissioned by September 1. The case was remanded back to the trial court for entry of judgment for Ms. Leigh.

(Property owner was represented by Garvey Schubert Barer.)

City of Harrisburg v Ellen Leigh

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