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Flight 93 property's valuation disputed

| Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013, 12:15 a.m.

The federal government on Wednesday called its key expert to debunk claims it paid well below fair market value for the Somerset County land where Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11, 2001.

The government took 275 acres, including six acres where the plane crashed, through eminent domain in 2009. It paid $611,000 to property owner Michael Svonavec, who received $750,000 for expenses from the Families of Flight 93. The nonprofit organization represents 40 passengers and crew members who died while fighting with terrorists and causing the plane to crash.

Svonavec hired California real estate appraiser Randall Bell, who determined the Stoneycreek Township property would be worth $23.3 million as a private memorial with a visitors center, museum and other amenities.

“At best, what he has valued is the land and the business,” said David Lennhoff, a real estate appraiser and consultant from McLean, Va., hired by the government to critique Bell's assessment. “At worst, he valued the land and the business incorrectly.”

Lennhoff testified on day three of an eminent domain hearing regarding the property's value. U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose denied a government request to postpone proceedings because of the federal government shutdown. A three-member commission will decide the case.

Lennhoff said Bell's report offered little to support his claim of what the property is worth, though he did not offer an alternate value of the rural land that once was home to a strip-mining operation. Svonavec and his family own a coal and quarry company, Svonavec Inc.

“My job is to read the Bell report, not do my own research,” Lennhoff testified.

Bell failed to follow established industry appraisal standards and did not include adequate evidence to support his findings that about 230,000 people would visit the site each year, with 80 percent of them paying $9 to visit an on-site museum and visitors center adjacent to a free memorial, Lennhoff said.

“You have a place of great significance. That is a fact,” Lennhoff said. “You can attract people to it. That's a fair statement.”

But being able to attract enough people who spend enough money over enough years to make the project financially feasible “is the unknown,” Lennhoff said.

Bell studied models used by a number of nonprofit and for-profit memorials to arrive at his figures, which he testified were conservative estimates of the true value. Those included Gettysburg, the Johnstown Flood Museum, the Alamo, the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum and Graceland, the Memphis estate where Elvis Presley died.

Lennhoff said information about those locations does not provide the kind of information needed to determine the value of the Flight 93 crash site.

“You cannot get that by looking at Graceland,” he said.

Bell testified that he based his conclusions on a work file containing about 11,000 pages. Lennhoff said government lawyers did not provide him that much documentation. Svonavec's lawyers said Lennhoff's file contained 310 pages of Bell's supporting work.

“It wasn't in the report,” Lennhoff said. “That's the point.”

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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