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Pioneer Way project legal fees continue to mount

Oak Harbor City Administrator Paul Schmidt briefs the City Council on the need to increase its contract amount with a Bellingham law firm for work concerning sidewalk easements.  - Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times
Oak Harbor City Administrator Paul Schmidt briefs the City Council on the need to increase its contract amount with a Bellingham law firm for work concerning sidewalk easements.
— image credit: Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times

Legal costs for obtaining easement rights to sidewalks along SE Pioneer Way in Oak Harbor are proving more expensive than anticipated.

At its Aug. 4 meeting, the Oak Harbor City Council agreed to increase the contract amount with Bellingham law firm Langabeer and Tull, P.S., by an additional $45,000. The decision brings the firm’s total legal fee to date to $115,000.

As the issue was decidedly unpopular when presented in July to members of the Finance Standing Committee, City Administrator Paul Schmidt began Wednesday evening by explaining that legal contracts are somewhat opened ended. When they are negotiated, the scope of work that will be needed is hard to determine early on.

However, he said city staff probably could have done a better job explaining that fact when the original contract was brought before the council earlier this year.

“We should have explained a little further, given the comments at the finance committee meeting,” Schmidt said.

The Bellingham firm was hired to acquire easement rights to sidewalks on 31 parcels along Pioneer Way through a legal maneuver known as “quiet title.” In this case, the action involved the council offering each property owner $1,290 for each of their applicable parcels. The term “quiet” comes into play because those who accepted the money also agreed to later not file suit against the city.

The sidewalk easements are needed in order to move ahead with the $8.35 million Pioneer Way improvement project. The plan is to revitalize the downtown area by turning the street into an eastbound one-way. One of the chief concerns was that without the easements, a future lawsuit could delay the construction schedule, which is set to begin early next year.

Easements for all but two of the property owners, accounting for five of the 31 parcels, have been secured. Kristi Jensen and Frank Scelzi recently hired an attorney and say they plan to fight the issue in court. They claim the sidewalks belong to them.

Councilman Danny Paggao asked whether the potential legal battle could delay the construction schedule.

City Attorney Margery Hite said that they are anticipating a lawsuit, but it’s still not clear yet what will happen or whether a delay will ensue. She also pointed out that the increase in legal fees is not related; it’s the result of the extensive labor involved in sorting out all the details for each of the 31 properties.

Most council members indicated that while they may not like the unexpected increase, it was understandable and therefore justified.

“Initially I was kind of put out when I saw this request for additional funds. ... Then after I went through the invoices it’s pretty well documented how complicated it is,” Councilman Rick Almberg said.

While the quiet title action is only the acquirement of easements, Councilman Bob Severns said even with the increased cost the city is getting a substantial return for its investment.

“That’s actually like acquiring 26 pieces of commercial property,” Severns said.

Councilman Jim Palmer was also in favor of the increase, although he had concerns about the open-ended contract when it was first brought before the council, and was consequently not pleased when the increase was introduced to the finance standing committee in July. Palmer is one of three council members that serve on the committee.

Despite his misgivings, Palmer said it doesn’t make sense to switch attorneys so late in the process, and that the increase is still cheaper than fighting a slew of legal battles over sidewalks.

“I don’t think we really have any choice,” Palmer said. “We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

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