Since voters resoundingly endorsed the monorail by voting down a recall effort last November, the Seattle Monorail Project (SMP) has acted like the proverbial prodigal son. SMP leaders have tested the public's patience, frittering away support with a series of boneheaded moves: a politically foolish (and DOA) effort to prod the legislature into extending the length of monorail bonds to 60 years; gifting Executive Director Joel Horn, even as revenues continue to lag, with a fat raise (upping his take to a regal $187,000); and imposing a culture of secrecy and spin on the public agency slick enough to make Bush press flack Scott McClellan proud.

Now, in what appears to be only the latest public relations fiasco, the agency appears to be using its governmental power to take advantage of some property owners, condemning more land than they need to build the initial Green Line. In fact, the owners claim--not without reason--that SMP is engaging in an unethical, and perhaps illegal, land grab. The affected properties are likely to rise in value when the project is finished, and SMP could then sell them off to private developers at a hefty profit.

The Kubota family, owner of the "Sinking Ship" garage at Second Avenue and Yesler Way in Pioneer Square, has fought the condemnation all the way to the state supreme court, which heard oral arguments in the case last week. SMP wants to put a station on the property; the owners are not opposed to that, according to their attorney, George Kresovich of Hillis Clark Martin & Peterson. But the station will only occupy part of the property, yet SMP is condemning the entire parcel, which the monorail intends to use as a construction staging area as the Green Line is built.

The family has offered to lease the extra land to SMP for the six years or more it will take to finish the work, but the agency has been "completely unwilling to talk" about the proposal, Kresovich says. He adds that John Fujii, the family head, believes the agency has "dealt with him in bad faith. The monorail has a plan for his property, and he's not part of that plan."

That plan, Kresovich contends, includes selling off the extra land for what is called "associated development" once construction is completed. He substantiates this claim by pointing out that Debi Frausto, a monorail attorney working on right-of-way issues, has also been tasked with exploring development opportunities on land the monorail appropriates. And he claims that at an April 2004 Pioneer Square neighborhood meeting, an agency representative told attendees that SMP would sell the remainder of the property for private development.

Fujii is not the only property owner complaining about SMP's actions. The owners of a second site, the location of the Denny's restaurant on 15th Avenue in Ballard, also have gone to the press with complaints that the agency is taking more of their land than is necessary.

Monorail representatives offer several explanations for their decision to take the entire Sinking Ship property. The site, they point out, is small, and with the station design not yet complete, it could turn out that they will need the entire parcel. Even if that is not the case, renting the remainder could cost nearly as much as buying it outright, they say.

As for the allegation that there is a plan in place to develop the condemned land? "It just ain't so," says Ross Macfarlane, SMP's legal affairs director, who maintains that what will happen to the land will be decided by the monorail board at a later date.

Asked if the agency has built the idea of "associated development" into its plans, board member Cindi Laws, an increasingly vocal critic of the current agency leadership, offers a less than ringing denial: "not officially." She says that Horn, given his previous career facilitating development deals, has certainly raised suspicions among property owners about the agency's intentions. "It gets a lot of people nervous," she says of Horn's background.

Whether Fujii will be able to hang onto part of his land is an open question. A King County superior court judge has ruled against him, and the supreme court may do the same. But in the court of public opinion, the agency's perceived arrogance could yet result in a guilty verdict.

sandeep@thestranger.com

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