Johnson City officials say they’ve done everything within reason and more to work out an amiable deal to buy U-Haul’s downtown property and proceed with a major phase of its longterm stormwater plan.
The company, on the other hand, has been hesitant to engage in serious dialogue throughout a months-long process and has now failed to respond to the city’s final written offer within 10 days of receipt. A prolonged lack of sincere communication shows the company’s intentions may be to challenge the condemnation in court.
“We reviewed the letter,” Joanne Fried, U-Haul International public relations director said last week. “We have not responded to the city at this time, and we are exploring our legal alternatives.”
In late July, commissioners voted 4-1, with Commissioner Clayton Stout voting in opposition, to condemn 114 W. King St., where U-Haul is doing business. The city informed the owner that the property is a needed part of Johnson City’s stormwater plan and that it would help relocate the business, but Public Works Director Phil Pindzola said communication had come to a standstill.
That was more than four months ago.
“We sent them a certified letter, and there was no acknowledgment of that,” City Manager Pete Peterson said during last week’s City Commission meeting. “At this point, I think it’s time to go forward with condemnation.”
Peterson said he had no choice but to instruct the city’s legal counsel to prepare condemnation proceedings.
“The last communication I had was a telephone call in which they flatly said no — they would not accept a reasonable offer,” Pindzola said early Tuesday. “They just decided no. I then sent them a final offer, and they did not respond. There’s no doubt they received the letter and email.”
In July, Phoenix-based AMERCO Real Estate Co., U-Haul’s parent company, informed the Johnson City Press it wanted its downtown Johnson City business to stay right where it is, despite the city’s continued attempts at negotiating a price for the property, including relocation costs.
The city offered the company $820,000 for the property based on an independent appraisal, but Pindzola said the city would have negotiated a reasonable price.
“There’s not much the city can do that’s going to make us happy,” Fried said at the time. “We will fight the condemnation process. We don’t want this to go to court, but we’ve done this before.”
The city plans to build a large detention pond on the property to capture overflow when King Creek floods. The long-range goal is to turn this area of downtown into what is being called the Event Commons which would be traversed by a newly created path for King Creek running between Boone and Roan streets.
Commissioner Ralph Van Brocklin said it was his understanding the letter went out 4-6 weeks ago.
“It has been the hope of the City Commission — and the supporting effort has been there on the part of staff — that we could arrive at an agreement that would avoid condemnation and facilitate relocation of a business that we would love to see remain in Johnson City,” he said. “We certainly would like to preserve the jobs which are involved. Unfortunately, it appears as if this hope is waning.”
There was back-and-forth communication for a time, but U-Haul has not returned telephone calls, responded to the letter or asked for continuing dialogue, Van Brocklin added.
Pindzola said he has been in contact with Clay McQuade, U-Haul’s regional president in Knoxville. McQuade has been assigned to negotiate with the city, according to Pindzola. But the going has been slow, and Pindzola — who has been contacted by the Press on a regular basis about the status of negotiations — has said responses have not come quickly.
The Press called McQuade’s office last week but was told to speak with Fried.
“From what I’ve heard, it seems that U-Haul wants to dig their feet in,” Stout said. “I did support them and their property rights during the vote for condemnation, but I’m disappointed that they don’t seem to be responding.”
Fried has said AMERCO President Carlos Vizcarra has talked with Peterson and expressed his desire to stay at the current location. She also said the company had submitted a $5 million plan to create a viaduct at the site but the city turned it down.
Pindzola said any plan for a $5 million viaduct “must be sitting on some desk other than mine.”
Under the city charter, which is supported by state law, municipalities have the right of eminent domain, which includes the condemnation and acquisition “for present or future public use.” Tennessee law adds that the action is permissible should “the public welfare” require it.