Flight 93 property's valuation disputed
By Jason Cato
Published: Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013, 12:01 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Qualifications of Peduto nominee for building inspection chief come up short
- Suspect in East Liberty slayings may be part of murder-for-hire case
- On Pittsburgh visit, ambassador says $15B in aid to Ukraine shows support
- FirstEnergy last to get smart meter OK
- Casey says C-130s to remain into ’15 at Moon base, but squadron will lose jobs
- House fire in Carnegie, no injuries reported
- CCAC to offer early retirement incentives
- State Superior Court denies ex-Sen. Jane Orie’s corruption appeal
- PennDOT cash eases road repair pain in Lawrence County
- Portion of South Busway to be detoured Friday
- Newsmaker: Charlotte Lott