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Owner of property where Flight 93 crashed sues government over land value

Jason Cato
| Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, 1:39 p.m.

The Somerset County property where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed is more akin to Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor and even Graceland than it is to the simple farmland it was before the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a real estate expert dubbed the “Master of Disaster” and “Appraiser of Doom” testified on Tuesday in federal court.

The 275-acre parcel near Shanksville, however, is most like the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, said Randall Bell, founder and owner of a California-based real estate damage firm.

“This woke America up to this world of terrorism,” Bell testified in U.S. District Court, Downtown, during an eminent domain hearing.

Michael Svonavec, owner of Svonavec Inc., said the government condemned his land in September 2009 and paid him $611,000. The property is worth more than $23 million, Bell determined.

Minus the money the government has paid and $725,000 the Families of Flight 93 nonprofit group paid him, Svonavec seeks $21.9 million from the government.

“There is an enormous amount of intrigue in it,” Bell said, noting that people often ask him about the World Trade Center site and Shanksville. “It's iconic. It's known throughout the world.”

Bell said he studied revenues generated at 20 locations around the world, including Gettysburg, the Johnstown Flood Museum and the site of the 1995 domestic-terrorist bombing at an Oklahoma City federal building. Other sites included Memphis' Graceland and the National Civil Rights Museum, the site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination; the Dallas Book Depository, from where the shot that killed President Kennedy in 1963 is said to have been fired; the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; and Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Japan.

Also considered were sales of a number of large parcels of land across Pennsylvania intended to house shopping centers, a hospital, green space and a landfill. All sold for amounts comparable to the $1.94 per square foot he valued Svonavec's property, Bell said.

“I think the Flight 93 site is certainly worth more than a site that would be used for a landfill,” Bell testified. “None of those properties had any national or international prominence.”

Bell set a fair market value of the Flight 93 site at $23.3 million after subtracting more than $3 million that would have been spent on a visitors center and memorial. He conservatively estimated 230,000 people would visit the site each year, with most spending $9 for admission and $4 on concessions. The nonprofit site, as envisioned by Svonavec, would have generated nearly $1.9 million annually, Bell said, with donations going directly to victims' families.

“It's not an emotional issue. It's an economic reality issue,” Bell said. “Somebody reasonable, and justifiably so, could apply much higher numbers than I have in this case.”

A three-person commission appointed by U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose will decide the case. Testimony continues Wednesday with government lawyers cross-examining Bell, who appraised values of the Los Angeles-area home where O.J. Simpson's ex-wife and her friend were murdered; the Boulder, Colo., house where child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey was found strangled; and the World Trade Center site in New York.

What happened at those properties impact their value, as what happened in Somerset County impacted the value of Svonavec's property, Bell said.

“9/11 was a life-changing event,” he said. “The world had a pivotal change on that day, and this site is tied to that change forever.”

Brian Bowling contributed to this report. Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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