New courthouse means Everett business owners will lose property

EVERETT, Wash. -- Snohomish County Executive John Lovick signed the 2014 budget on Wednesday, which paves the way for a controversial new courthouse.

Included in the budget is a new property tax hike that will help pay to replace the county's aging courthouse with a new nine-story building. County leadership says the current courthouse is old, too small, has asbestos issues and earthquake concerns.

A new courthouse comes with a $165 million price tag, but that's not the only cost. Six Everett businesses are about to lose their property to make way for the new building.

The county plans to acquire the businesses located along Rockefeller Avenue through eminent domain. The businesses border a county-owned surface parking lot near the Wall Street and Oakes Avenue intersection. The County plans to use the businesses and the parking lot as the footprint for a new courthouse.

County Councilman Brian Sullivan said the county has had its eye on the property for years, and passed a measure in 1994 stating the county's intent to develop the property as a law and justice center.

But the the business owners affected, including David and Janean Jolly, were the last to know.

"It was a shock. It was a shock because this was in the works for many, many months but we were never notified or told anything," said David Jolly, a criminal defense attorney who owns an office building across the street from the Snohomish County Courthouse.

"No notice, no courtesy call, nothing," said his wife and business manager Janean Jolly.

The Jollys say they found out by accident that the County was considering taking their property by eminent domain.

"An attorney told me while I was in court on a case that he was sorry about my building, I didn't know what he was talking about. He told me he read about it in the paper," said David Jolly.

"It's been difficult," said Janean Jolly "This building is our baby and we're in mourning."

The couple bought the 2,000 square foot single-story building 14 months ago. They spent six month renovating it, restoring the original wood ceiling and replacing everything else. They lease office space to six tenants, mostly other attorneys. Their life savings went into the $500,000 project.

"It's devastating," said David Jolly. "We had a dream to build this. We bought it, invested our retirement funds into it. We figured this would be an investment we could hand down to our son."

Now they're waiting to find out what happens next. Construction on the new courthouse is scheduled for 2015. The Jollys and Brian Sullivan, who owns a neighboring law firm, still have had no official county correspondence.

"I've heard nothing from the County," Sullivan said.

Lovick was available to comment on the controversy, but that the county followed the letter of the law with regard to eminent domain. And while admitting it would be nice to give the business owners prior notification, that's not how the process works.

The Jollys learned about the eminent domain threat in August when they read about it in the local newspaper. According to minutes from council meetings, members were considering four locations for a new courthouse, including the Wall Street and Oakes Avenue intersection.

The Jollys took their concerns to the council and during public comment periods asked council members to find another location and spare the businesses. In September, the council responded and decided to remove the business properties as a possible location.

The Jollys hoped they were home free. They say after touring their business, the County Executive told them he thought their property was safe.

But in November the Jollys learned, after the fact, that their corner of property was back in the mix. On November 25, the council announced it voted to build a new, nine-story courthouse building on property at the northwest corner of the Wall Street and Oakes Avenue intersection.

The County's website said, "The new building will house the clerk's office, prosecuting attorney's office, office of public defense, and superior and district courts. Construction is expected to begin in early 2015, and the building is expected to open in the fall of 2016 or by early 2017."

"So keep in mind, it's five people telling the community what they're doing with over $165 million," said Janean Jolly.

David Jolly said he and his wife aren't ready to give up their fight to keep their building.

"We have to fight until we can't fight any more, but with an eye for protecting our investment," he said.

Councilman Brian Sullivan said the council will do everything it can to make the affected property owners whole. But insisted, "In the end this is really the best decision ... it's all about public safety."

The council considered building the new courthouse right next to the existing courthouse on its plaza. Sullivan said it wouldn't work, primarily because it wouldn't be safe.

"You can't do court business with construction happening six feet from the building on the Courthouse Plaza. We thought about relocating the staff temporarily, but it would cost $20 million dollars," he said.

Sullivan said building along Rockefeller between Oakes Avenue and Wall Street made the most sense financially.

The property tax increase equates to about $20 more annually for the average homeowner.