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Jury awards $1-million for owner's loss of land

The Department of Transportation had offered $66,400 for the 24 acres for a State Road 50 project.

When Jack Hamilton's company bought 30 acres of commercial property near Brooksville five years ago, it was purely a business investment.

So when the Department of Transportation condemned the bulk of the land for its State Road 50 improvement project and offered less than a $5,000 profit, Hamilton balked.

So did a Hernando County jury.

After a trial last week, jurors awarded $1-million to Hamilton Engineering & Surveying Inc. for a 24-acre site at Jefferson Street and Cortez Boulevard, just east of Brooksville.

The Department of Transportation offered the Tampa engineering company $66,400 for the property, a figure recommended by independent appraisers hired by the state. The experts on Hamilton Engineering's side said the figure was more like $1.6-million.

In 1994, Hamilton Engineering bought the property as part of a 30-acre parcel for $62,000, according to records at the Hernando County Property Appraiser's Office. In 1995, county appraisers set the value of the 30 acres at $54,714.

"I've felt for a long time that area is ready to boom," Hamilton said.

But Department of Transportation officials argued that Hernando County is not a growing market, said Andrew Diaz, an attorney with the Tampa law firm that represented Hamilton Engineering.

"They didn't feel there was potential for new commercial growth," he said.

Diaz said DOT attorneys compared the commercially zoned property to tracts the state bought for preservation, such as the Weekiwachee Preserve. That is a bit like comparing apples and oranges, he said.

Hamilton's lawyers argued that the land is ripe for development because most of the land is cleared, and trees line the frontage areas.

"Those arguments were obscene," Hamilton said. "Why in the world are they improving the roads if it weren't for growth? They don't believe their own party line."

Judith Ellery served on the jury during the five-day trial and said her decision was swayed by the appraiser who testified for the state.

"It was his illogical logic," the Spring Hill resident said. "It didn't make sense for them to say that was an unbuildable lot."

State transportation spokesman Ron Winter said he thinks an appeal of the ruling is highly unlikely.

"Basically, the jury has spoken," he said.

According to Florida's eminent domain laws, title for the 24 acres was transferred to the state in May 1998. The state deposited $79,100 with the court while the matter was in litigation and must now come up with the rest of the money.

By law, the state will also be responsible for the engineering company's legal fees. Diaz said those costs have not been determined.

The budget for the road project was calculated using the transportation department's property assessment values, Winter said, and the large settlement will likely throw the budget off.

"They're going to have to go find the money somewhere," he said.