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Initial appraisal on United Flight 93 crash site higher

| Friday, Oct. 11, 2013, 12:07 a.m.

The federal government scrapped a higher appraisal for the Somerset County property where United Flight 93 crashed and instead used one that valued the land no differently from other rural pastures in the area, according to testimony on Thursday in a federal civil trial focused on the land's market value.

“The crash, although it does make the subject property unique ... contributed no economic appreciation in value,” said Gregory Jones, a real estate appraiser from Maryland. “So that factor was not important in my determination of the sales price.”

The Department of Justice hired Jones in 2009 to appraise the 275 acres near Shanksville where the hijacked commercial airliner crashed on Sept. 11, 2001, after passengers and crew struggled with terrorists.

Jones previously reviewed another appraisal and persuaded the National Parks Service to reject a $1.53 million price tag that valued the land if it was to be home to a free memorial and a privately operated visitors center and museum that would charge admission.

Former property owner Michael Svonavec said he intended to build just that and obtained his own appraisal showing the land and memorial would be worth $23.3 million. The government in September 2009 seized his land through eminent domain and paid $610,000, or around $2,200 per acre — the amount Jones deemed the property to be worth. Svonavec also received $750,000 for expenses from the nonprofit Families of Flight 93.

Svonavec sued the government for more than $21 million. The case is being heard before a three-member commission in U.S. District Court, Downtown. Judge Donetta Ambrose is presiding.

Jones said he considered a hypothetical memorial and visitors center when determining the property value but came to the conclusion that they were not economically feasible, given the infrastructure needs, construction costs and operational expenses, among other factors.

“I'm not saying you cannot put a memorial and museum there, but it most likely would lose money,” Jones testified.

Memorials such as the Johnstown Flood Museum, the Pearl Harbor memorial and others would not make money if not for grants and donations, he said.

Attorneys for Svonavec said he planned to give any such money to the victims' families. But they maintain paid attendance to the museum and money spent on concessions would make it profitable.

The best economic uses for the property would be an open space, farmland or hunting grounds, said Jones, who added that the 6-acre crash site should be deemed sacred ground but not considered a memorial in and of itself without a monument or other structures.

Since seizing the property, the Parks Service has spent $28.5 million on memorials, access roads, restrooms, parking lots and other amenities there, testified Keith Newlin, a deputy superintendent with the agency. It manages the site as a nonprofit venture.

Last month, the agency hired a contractor to build a roughly $20 million visitors center and other amenities at the site, which has attracted more than 100,000 people each year since the plane crash. The center would be built on property adjacent to what was taken from Svonavec, Newlin said. The government took about 1,500 acres.

Attendance at the site reached 318,000 last year, Newlin said. It is expected to top 400,000 after the visitors center opens, before settling at around 230,000 annually, he said.

“We assume visitors want to come see a site that is not commercially developed,” Newlin said. “It's an iconic site.”

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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