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Panel to advise judge in Flight 93 property case

| Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, 12:03 a.m.

More than a decade after passengers and crew fought terrorists aboard a hijacked airplane that crashed in Somerset County, a three-member panel will decide whether the government paid a fair market price when it seized the land through eminent domain.

“This is all about fairness and common sense,” attorney Vincent Barbera, who represents former property owner Michael Svonavec, said Friday in U.S. District Court, Downtown, during closing arguments. The trial began Monday.

The government in 2009 took more than 1,000 acres, including 275 acres owned by Svonavec, where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11, 2001. The government paid $610,000 — or about $2,200 per acre — for the rural property, which it valued no more than surrounding pasture land. Svonavec sued, claiming the property is worth $23.3 million with the public memorial and private museum he planned to build on the former strip-mined land his family had owned since 1961.

“People are going to come. They have every day, every week, every year since the crash of Flight 93,” Barbera said. “It has intrinsic value.”

More than 100,000 people have visited the site each year since 2001, with a record 318,000 visitors last year, the National Park Service reported.

That Park Service already has spent $28.5 million building memorials, new roads and other amenities at the Flight 93 National Memorial. Last month, it awarded a $20 million contract for the construction of a visitors' center, footbridge and other improvements.

Government experts testified this week that the land was worth no more than it was without such additions, which they said would not be feasible as a private venture.

Svonavec planned to build a visitor center and museum with concessions and charge $9 admission. The crash site memorial he planned could have been visited for free, his lawyers said.

The government argued the lack of development when it took the land four years ago was a critical point.

“There was no business enterprise on the property the day of taking. There had never been in relation to Flight 93,” Kristin Muenzen, a lawyer with the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division in Washington, told the three commissioners helping U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose decide the case. “There is strong demand to see where the plane crashed, but that does not mean there is strong demand to pay $9 for a private museum and buy concessions.”

Once a transcript of the trial is delivered in the next two to four weeks, the commissioners will have a month to prepare a written report to the court. Both parties will be able to respond before Ambrose issues her final opinion.

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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