By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer
A Boone County judge Wednesday declared a mistrial in a condemnation case involving 80 acres the airport needs for its new runway project.
In the ruling, Circuit Court Judge Joseph F. Bamberger threw out a $9.5 million award to the landowners by a jury earlier this month and granted a new trial.
Bamberger ruled that the jury had placed values on certain parcels that were outside what either side had stated. He set the new trial date for Oct. 29, agreeing in part with a motion filed by the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
The jury verdict had far exceeded the $2.56 million the airport had previously offered for the land. The Conner family, which has owned the land for more than 200 years, was seeking more than $4 million for it.
"We are obviously very pleased," said Debra Pleatman, an attorney with Ziegler and Schneider, the firm that represents the airport.
But Phil Taliaferro, who is representing the landowners - the Conner family - also welcomed another trial. He said that based upon his assessor's valuation, a new jury could award as much as $10 million for the 80 acres alone, before any potential damages to the Conners' remaining 25 acres in the area is considered.
"We get to try it again in front of another jury, which is wonderful and what we always wanted," Taliaferro said.
The previous trial was to determine how much the Conner family would be paid for the 80 acres needed for construction of a new runway at the airport and what the damage would be to the 25 acres that would remain in the Conners' possession.
The family already had granted the airport access to the land to begin construction on the $236 million runway project, so the ruling and resulting new trial will not delay construction. The project is under way. The new runway and extension to the existing east-west runway is scheduled for completion in late 2005.
Airport officials had also previously said they could extend the amount of time they collect passenger fees to cover any additional cost but that those fees cannot rise since they are at their legal $4.50-a-ticket maximum.
In awarding the family the $9.5 million May 9, the jury set a value of $101,249 an acre for the entire 125-acre parcel. The jury then ruled that the 25 acres remaining after the airport took what it needed would be worth $45,000 an acre after the new runway went into place. That meant that the airport would have paid nearly $8.1 million for the required 80 acres and another $1.4 million for the damage to the remaining 25 acres.
But the value set for that additional 25 acres was below the lowest limit of $55,000 an acre set by what Bamberger called "expert testimony," or the values set by each side's assessors during the trial. The total difference between the two was $250,000.
"The amount was less than the opinion of either expert, and there is case law that is abundantly clear that the jury verdict must be within the experts' opinions," Bamberger said Wednesday.
The airport's motion also said the verdict was the result of "passion and prejudice" because of improper and emotional statements by Taliaferro, and that the Conner family's assessor made improper adjustments to come up with his values.
Bamberger said he ruled only on the land value issue and would not comment on the other issues.
Taliaferro acknowledged being admonished by Bamberger for his conduct during the trial but said that he made it clear during the trial that the family was willing to sell "for a fair price."
Pleatman said the final verdict was a direct result of those emotional appeals, however.
"They went with the David and Goliath approach, and the Kentucky courts have previously found that in condemnation proceedings, that is not proper," she said.
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