Terry and Gerald Graham can remember watching their children run up and down the beach of Aloe Bay from the deck of their Dauphin Island home during stays on lower Alabama’s popular barrier island. Their island neighbors, Michael and Diane Johnson, have similar memories of their children, too.
The Graham and Johnson families can also remember not being able to relax on their porch for weeks and even months after the Dauphin Island bridge tragedy. Through the good and the bad, though, they never imagined the rooms, porches, yards and access to water where they made so many memories could, one day, cease to be theirs.
Then some letters came in the mail.
One was addressed to 1310 Chaumont Ave., the other to 1312, and another to neighbors across the street. It said the government would repurpose land where these homes are located.
“I know that they can’t buy our dreams and memories,” Terry Graham told Lagniappe as she expressed her disappointment in learning about eminent domain proceedings for the Dauphin Island Airport.
“We had plans to retire here,” Michael and Diane Johnson both noted of their island house that’s been in the family roughly 30 years.
Runway Protection Zone
The Grahams, Johnsons and their neighbor across the street at 1313 Chaumont Ave., Delores Kelley-Kennedy, all live on land that, upon Mobile County receiving funding from the Federal Aviation Administration, was deemed to be needed as a safety buffer zone for planes landing at the Dauphin Island Airport.
The safety areas, called a Runway Protection Zone by the FAA, aren’t a new standard, according to Aeronautics Division Bureau Chief John Eagerton of the Alabama Department of Transportation.
“The RPZ’s are areas off the ends of the runways put in place to protect the people on the ground and people in the plane,” Eagerton said. “Anything that attracts a congregation of people, like a house is not compatible. A road can go through it. But, generally speaking, the area needs to be kept in a cleared and mowable condition.”
In order to receive federal funding, Eagerton said, the owner of the airport — in this case Mobile County — must be in compliance with federal regulations.
FAA Spokesperson Kathleen Bergen said the current length and width of the runway at Dauphin Island only allows for smaller aircraft to use the facility.
When asked if the FAA required airports like the one on Dauphin Island to have RPZ’s, FAA Airport District Manager Rans Black, who handles airports in both Mississippi and Alabama said yes, so long as the facility’s operators have accepted federal funding in the past. He also noted, residential land use inside of an RPZ is against FAA regulations, because Mobile County has accepted federal funding in both the past and for this particular project.
Black said once the FAA was made aware of the need for the Dauphin Island project by the State of Alabama, his agency asked for a plan. When Mobile County submitted the plan to buy lots for the RPZ, they felt it was appropriate and offered their concurrence.
Bergen confirmed the FAA had recently issued three grants to Mobile County for a total of $1 million to acquire property for the RPZ. The amount of federal funding in this specific scenario amounts to 95 percent of the RPZ project, Bergen added. The remaining 5 percent of funding for projects like this is generally split between local and state governments evenly, Eagerton said.
The grants obligate Mobile County to maintain and make the airport available for public use for 20 years, Bergen said.
As for the project’s execution, Bergen noted, that’s left between the airport’s owner and the landowners. She also noted the FAA doesn’t fund any type of operational costs and there are many airports that don’t accept federal funding.
“We just provide funding when there’s a signed purchase agreement,” Bergen said.
Dissent is apparent when you talk to Dauphin Island Airport Manager and retired FAA air traffic controller Bill Meredith, however.
“In this case there could have been a waiver,” he said. “I’m disappointed we’re spending in excess of $1 million and it’s questionable at best how much you’re improving the safety of the people on the ground.”
Meredith says most of the traffic at the facility is from helicopters.
“We have, on average about 25 total operations daily,” Meredith said. “That’s coming and going. With our traffic flow, this move isn’t going to help much.”
He also sharply criticized the state of Alabama for their interpretation of the requirements and said the FAA is simply choosing not to go against what the state wants.
“This is just the state milking the federal government for all it’s worth. I understood it (the regulation) as having some latitude,” Meredith said of the circular handbook Black referenced. “Those rules have nothing to do with houses and everything to do with people. Now if you want to say a house will constantly attract a group of 12 people or more, OK, but that’s still the people, not the house. It’s black and white. Obviously Dr. Eagerton interpreted the rule differently.”
Execution: Mobile County, Volkert and Buddy Eslava
As custodians of the Dauphin Island Airport, a basic, unmanned, one-runway operation with no facilities for plane storage or maintenance, Mobile County hired Mobile-based contracting firm Volkert & Associates to execute a revised airport layout plan and land acquisitions for the RPZ.
Part of the responsibilities assumed by Volkert in completing the land acquisition for the RPZ involved the hire of Edmund “Buddy” Eslava for the purposes of a property appraisal.
The Johnsons, Grahams and Kelley-Kennedy contend Eslava grossly undervalued their houses at appraisal time.
An example of just one of the families’ contentions is evidenced in a letter dated April 16, 2010, that was sent to Volkert. The correspondence from Terry and Gerald Graham said upon their receiving notice that an appraisal would be necessary in late August of 2009. They voiced concern over the condition of their house at that time. The house has been in the Graham family roughly 30 years.
“Because of limited building supplies, available contractors (after Hurricane Ivan) and the fact that we were in the process of building a new home in Saraland, Alabama we have been slow completing the final renovations to the downstairs,” the letter begins.
The Grahams say Eslava told them the condition of the house at that time wouldn’t affect the appraisal value. However, they remained concerned because in the lower half of the home the Grahams had added bedrooms, another living area and another bathroom, effectively doubling the square footage of the home.
“At the time he assured us that it would not affect the appraisal at all, that it would be based on the value of the lot, the square footage of the house, the deck, porch, concrete drive etc.,” the letter continues. “He went so far as to say he did not need to go inside of the home at all, he would only need a list of any special building materials we may have used in the house.”
The Grahams continue to describe their appraisal experience in the letter, claiming Eslava, after taking measurements of the lot, proceeded to enter the house and, room-by-room, take notes and pictures.
“He again said not to worry, this would not affect the appraisal,” the letter reads. “We are not stupid people and we know what an appraisal consists of and why he was doing what he was doing. We would have never allowed an appraisal to be conducted at that time had we known he was going to do this.”
At the time, the Grahams say they felt they had been cheated.
“Mr. Eslava lied to us and then used his findings to justify the much lower appraisal he turned in,” the letter concludes.
Eslava didn’t wish to talk about the details of the appraisal when Lagniappe contacted him, noting a confidentiality agreement with all of his clients, but he did offer statements about his protocol.
“I have nothing to hide,” Eslava said. “I followed every procedure. I have no dog in this hunt and I can understand a property owner is going to be mad if they think their property is worth $1 million and I tell them it’s worth $100,000.”
Eslava said he didn’t remember the appraisals in question, but contends there were no attempts to be unfair to the property owners. County Attorney Jay Ross backed Eslava’s sentiment, saying he believed the appraisal was legitimate.
“It’d be a disservice if you tried to print this as being unfair to the property owners,” Eslava said. “Thank God we live in America. They have certain liberties.”
The question of fairness
Conversely, the three families involved feel they’ve been given everything but a fair shake, claiming communication from Volkert and Mobile County has been non-existent.
The Johnsons also noted they were uncertain if anyone at the county was even involved in the process of reviewing their counter offers. When Lagniappe posed questions to Mobile County’s Public Relations Director Nancy Johnson, she told Lagniappe Mobile County and its subcontractors take every initiative to be fair with citizens.
“We have to be good stewards to everyone in the community,” Johnson said. “Overpaying for these properties isn’t doing the rest of the county any good, so we have to strike that balance and find a good deal that benefits everyone involved.”
If property owners don’t view the appraised value of their properties as fair, she added, they can go to probate court where a three-citizen panel will determine if they were given a fair offer. If the disagreement results in a court date, “evidence is key,” Johnson said.
And in the case of Terry and Gerald Graham, they fear pictures taken of their home as it was being repaired will serve as evidence of a state of repair they consider atypical.
“Just our land was appraised at $62,000!” Michael Johnson said. “You’re not going to find a lot anywhere on the island for that kind of money, let alone replace the lot we have right now. By the time you pay for utilities you’ll be way over that amount.”
According to Michael Johnson, Eslava appraised their house and land at $240,000. The Grahams say their home and property were appraised at $175,000. And, Kelley-Kennedy would not disclose the appraisal she received. Both the Johnsons’ and Grahams’ properties stretch to just shy of the shores of Aloe Bay, but defining them as “waterfront” has been a major issue in the appraisal process, according to the families.
“We’ve been told they’re panoramic view,” Diane Johnson said. Terry Graham added, the land at the shore is technically deeded to the University of South Alabama, but the school allowed them to access the land and maintain it as they wished.
Terry Graham is also quick to point out, while they are happy for one set of neighbors who settled with Mobile County early, the amount those people were offered for their home, which has no direct access to water, but is different in respects to square footage and design far exceeds any offer they’ve received.
“They got $580,000 for their house,” Terry Graham said. The sum paid to those neighbors makes up more than half of the FAA’s contribution to the project.
“They set a standard with that offer,” Diane Johnson said.
Ross said the offer was based on a legitimate appraisal value from Eslava, the same appraiser who determined the value of the Johnson, Graham and Kelley-Kennedy homes.
Accordingly, all three families involved have personally hired their own licensed appraiser and say the results seeking a second professional opinion have reaffirmed their feelings they were short-changed by the original evaluation.
“We can’t disclose how much our properties were appraised at because we’ve been told it would be our last bargaining chip if we have to go to court, but Mr. Eslava’s appraisal amounts to an insulting percentage of what our homes are worth,” Terry Graham told Lagniappe.
The Johnsons’ sentiment and actions mirror those of his neighbors. The families also take exception to the aforementioned lack of communication.
“We were told when we submitted counter offers we’d be contacted with a rejection or acceptance notification within three days,” Terry Graham said. “With our first offer, we submitted it on April 20. It was three full months before we had to call them back and ask if they’d even received it in July.”
“We have never been contacted by Mobile County or Volkert throughout this whole process,” Michael Johnson said.
After Terry Graham contacted John Baker, an employee in Volkert’s property acquisition department, she said he gave them the news of their rejection to the counter offer, but with a level of aloofness they didn’t appreciate.
“He seemed confused when he had heard we didn’t get a response earlier,” Graham said. “He said he thought someone had called us. No one ever called us.”
When Lagniappe called Baker at his Volkert office for an interview he declined comment and referred calls to Mobile County Attorney Jay Ross.
When told about the complaint being made against Volkert’s handling of the situation Ross said he’d look into the matter, but noted otherwise he’d heard no complaints.
After Michael and Diane Johnson told Lagniappe they weren’t sure if County Commissioner Mike Dean had ever bothered making a trip down to Dauphin Island to view the site of the eminent domain activities, Lagniappe spoke with the commissioner.
“I’m relying on the advice of our legal staff at the county,” Dean said. “My job isn’t to get in the middle of this, but I’ll certainly look to get more federal money for this project.”
When Lagniappe initially questioned Dean about the project he said as far as he was aware, everyone was happy.
“From what I understood there was only one eminent domain location remaining that was in question,” Dean said. “And we met and I made a commitment that I wasn’t going to take their (the neighbors who have settled) house and — matter of fact — the FFA (FAA) offered her enough money and she was willing to sell and relocate so she was fine with it. So we’re moving on with the project.”
When asked if he was aware of the other families, Dean initially said he wasn’t, but then acknowledged he did know about them and proceeded to discount their status as homeowners.
“Absolutely not. Those families that I guess I’m aware of are people that don’t even live there. That’s rental property,” Dean said. “They own it but they don’t live there.”
When quickly asked if he thought the families affected by the RPZ were being treated fairly, Volkert’s John Baker responded, “certainly.”
The families say it’s been hard to find a lawyer specializing in eminent domain matters they can trust or doesn’t have a tie to someone with Volkert, Mobile County or another conflicting person or entity.
Still, as the Johnsons, Grahams and Kelly-Kennedy just recently received notification letters informing them eminent domain proceedings have been initiated. They’re left feeling worn out and shortchanged, but ready to fight.
When the Johnsons and Grahams were asked if they’d even consider selling their homes in the current economy, the response was a unified “no.”
“It’s legalized robbery,” Michael Johnson said. “We’re so beat down from trying to get questions answered, but we’ll just gear up for whatever’s next.