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Mary Rose Greene, et al v. District of Columbia

December 6, 2012

MARY ROSE GREENE, ET AL., APPELLANTS
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAE-5321-05) (Hon. Craig Iscoe, Trial Judge)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Easterly, Associate Judge:

Argued June 29, 2012

Before OBERLY, BECKWITH, and EASTERLY, Associate Judges.

With this case we return to the District of Columbia‟s revitalization project for the Skyland Shopping Center area in Ward 7.*fn1

Appellant, Mary Rose Greene, owned property near the shopping center. After a portion of her property was condemned, a jury trial was held to determine her compensation for the taking. The jury awarded Ms. Greene almost two million dollars. Ms. Greene now appeals.

Setting aside her challenge to the trial court‟s subject matter jurisdiction, which we reject,*fn2 Ms. Greene‟s central claim is that she was inadequately compensated for two reasons: (1) the trial court did not permit her to present evidence of severance damages - i.e., evidence that the taking reduced the value of her untaken land-and (2) the trial court improperly restricted her expert appraiser‟s testimony.We find no merit to these arguments.*fn3 Where Ms. Greene had no claim for severance damages as a matter of law, the trial court properly acted as gatekeeper and precluded Ms. Greene from presenting evidence to the jury on this theory. Likewise, the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it limited Ms. Greene‟s expert appraiser‟s testimony regarding his foundation for his valuation of the taken land. We affirm.

I.FACTS

As the proceedings in this case spanned years, we summarize only the facts necessary to put our legal analysis in context.

From the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, Ms. Greene acquired a number of contiguous plots amounting to approximately eight and a half acres of land, forming a crescent shape, in the Southeast quadrant of the District of Columbia.*fn4

The land at the bottom of the crescent was about a block away from Skyland Shopping Center. Although Ms. Greene maintained that she always intended to develop this land, and although she made some improvements to the property during the decades in which she owned it (e.g., filling and regrading portions of the land), for the duration of her ownership, the land remained wooded, undeveloped, and unused.

Ms. Greene became aware in the early 1990‟s that the District was interested in revitalizing the Skyland area. In 2004, the District targeted Ms. Greene‟s land for development in conjunction with a plan to renovate the Skyland Shopping Center. In February 2005, the District offered to purchase approximately seven of Ms. Greene‟s eight and a half acres of land - the middle and bottom of the crescent-shaped parcel - for $943,000. Ms. Greene declined to sell at that price.

Instead, in June 2005, Ms. Greene asked an architect, Jane Nelson, to create a development plan that would demonstrate her land‟s market value.*fn5 Nelson Architects, in coordination with engineers and cost estimators, created a series of plans that attempted to maximize the density of development under existing zoning regulations while accommodating the "severe" topography of the site, which had dramatic changes in elevation. The final plan, which Ms. Greene and Ms. Nelson determined represented the highest and best use of the property, called for the construction of a 400-unit condominium complex in the middle of the crescent-shaped property and a total of twenty-four single-family houses, eleven at the top of the crescent and the remaining thirteen at the bottom of the crescent. The land at the top of the crescent-shaped parcel also gave the condominium complex access to public streets.

Well before this final plan was completed, the District filed suit in July 2005, to take Ms. Greene‟s property and determine just compensation under D.C. Code § 16-1311 (2001). The District and Ms. Greene each engaged an appraiser who filed expert reports opining as to the fair market value of the taken property. Both experts agreed that the best method of valuation under the circumstances was to look at sales of comparable properties in the area, contemporaneous to the taking. Nonetheless, in the almost six years it took to take this case to trial, the nature and scope of the expert testimony was vigorously litigated in multiple motions in limine. The disputes concerned (1) the availability of severance damages to the untaken land; (2) whether the sales that the experts relied upon in appraising the taken property were sufficiently comparable; and (3) the admissibility of other valuation methods for the taken land. The trial court*fn6 issued a series of rulings that precluded evidence of severance damages and ultimately limited Ms. Greene‟s expert‟s testimony about the basis of his appraisal to four completed comparable sales in the District.

The case finally went to trial in May 2011. At trial, the District‟s expert appraiser, David Lennhoff, opined that the value of Ms. Greene‟s taken land amounted to $1,850,000; Ms. Greene‟s expert appraiser, Dennis Duffy, asserted that the value was $9,561,000. The jury adopted the value offered by Mr. Lennhoff, and the trial judge entered a judgment in the amount of the jury's verdict. This appeal followed.

II.ANALYSIS

Ms. Greene challenges the adequacy of her compensation in this case on two grounds. First, she asserts that she was improperly precluded from presenting evidence to the jury about severance damages. Whether and under what circumstances a trial court has the power to bar a land owner‟s presentation of evidence about severance damages are questions of law that we review de novo. Anderson v. Abidoye, 824 A.2d 42, 44 (D.C. 2003). Second, Ms. Greene asserts that her expert appraiser‟s testimony about the basis for his valuation of the taken property was improperly constricted by the trial court because her appraiser was precluded from testifying about other land sales comparable to the taken land and about valuation methods for the taken ...


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