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United States v. 275.81 Acres of Land

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 26, 2014

United States of America, Plaintiff,
v.
275.81 Acres of Land, More or Less, Situated in Stonycreek Township, Somerset County, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and Svonavec, Inc. Defendant. AMBROSE, Senior District Judge

OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

DONETTA W. AMBROSE, Senior District Judge.

I. BACKGROUND

The factual and procedural details of this condemnation action are well known to the parties and I need not repeat them in detail here. In short, the United States of America filed a Complaint for Condemnation on September 1, 2009, for the taking of property under the power of eminent domain and for the ascertainment and award of just compensation to the owners and parties in interest. (Docket No. 1). The subject property consists of 275.81 acres of land owned at the time of taking by Defendant, Svonavec, Inc., and located in Stonycreek Township, Somerset County, Pennsylvania. This site includes approximately six acres of land on which United Airlines Flight 93 crashed on September 11, 2001. The United States acquired a fee simple estate in the 275.81 acres, including oil and gas rights and eight acres of coal, subject to existing easements and certain rights of third parties. See Docket No. 1. The public use for which the property was taken was for the administration, preservation, and development of a Flight 93 National Memorial. Id.

The parties in this case agreed that the issue of just compensation for the taking of the land involved should be determined by a commission, and I found that the appointment of such a commission was appropriate under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 71.1(h)(2)(A) for just reasons, including the complex appraisal methodologies and valuation issues involved. See Docket Nos. 137, 144. Accordingly, On July 9, 2013, I appointed an impartial three-person commission pursuant to Rule 71.1(h) to determine just compensation to be paid to Defendant by the United States. See Docket No. 144. The Commission was comprised of two real estate appraisers and one real estate attorney. See id.

A trial on just compensation was held before the Commission on October 7-11, 2013. On December 9, 2013, the Commission issued a 72-page report concluding that the "just compensation" for the 275.81 acres of land in fee simple, including oil and gas rights and eight acres of coal, acquired by the United States under its power of eminent domain on September 2, 2009, is $1, 535, 000. (Docket No. 189).

Pending are the United States' Motion to Adopt in Part and Modify in Part Certain Findings of the Report of the Commission and Objections to the Report of the Commission (Docket No. 201) and Defendant's Objections to and Motion to Modify the Report of the Commission. (Docket No. 200). Each party opposes the other's Motion and Objections. (Docket Nos. 205, 206, 211, 214). The matter is now ripe for my review.

II. ANALYSIS

A. Standard of Review

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 71.1(h) permits the Court to appoint a three-person commission to determine compensation because of the character, location, or quantity of the property to be condemned, or for other just reasons. Fed.R.Civ.P. 71.1(h)(A). Pursuant to this Rule, the Commission has the powers of a master under Rule 53(c). Fed.R.Civ.P. 71.1(h)(D). Rule 53(d), (e), and (f) applies to the Commission's action and report. Id.

Rule 53(f)(3) requires that the Court decide de novo all objections to the Commission's findings of fact, unless the parties, with the Court's approval, stipulate that the findings will be reviewed for clear error. Fed.R.Civ.P. 53(f)(3). The parties in this case did not stipulate to a clear error review. Thus, I must apply the de novo standard to all objections to the Commission's factual findings. Rule 53(f) also requires me to decide de novo all objections to the Commission's conclusions of law, and to review any rulings on procedural matters under an abuse of discretion standard. Fed.R.Civ.P. 53(f)(4), (5).

In United States v. Merz , 376 U.S. 192 (1964), the United States Supreme Court provided guidelines regarding the sufficiency of a commission's report. Specifically, the Court held that although "commissioners need not make detailed findings such as judges do who try a case without a jury, " they must "reveal the reasoning they use in deciding on a particular award, what standard they try to follow, ... and so on." Id. at 198-99. Conclusory findings alone are not enough. Id. at 198. "The path followed by the commissioners in reaching the amount of the award [should] be distinctly marked" so that the Court knows "what path the commissioners took through the maze of conflicting evidence." Id. at 198-99 (reasoning that commissioners "will give more careful consideration to the problem if they are required to state not only the end result of their inquiry, but the process by which they reached it").

As set forth above, the Commission in this case filed a comprehensive 72-page report setting forth the path it took in reaching its valuation conclusion, the reasoning it employed, and the record evidence on which it based its decision. (Docket No. 189). This report more than satisfies the requirements set forth in Merz and has allowed me to undertake an informed and meaningful review. After careful consideration of the Report, the parties' submissions, the record, and applicable law, and for the reasons set forth below, I adopt the Commissioners' Report and the findings contained therein.

B. Eminent Domain - Just Compensation

As I instructed the Commission prior to trial, the United States has the authority to take private property for use by eminent domain, provided that it satisfies its Fifth Amendment obligation to provide "just compensation" to the owner thereof. United States v. 6.45 Acres of Land , 409 F.3d 139, 145 (3d Cir. 2005) (quoting Kirby v. Forest Indus., Inc. , 467 U.S. 1, 9 (1984)). "In general, just compensation' means the fair market value of the property on the date it is appropriated.'" Id . "The guiding principle of just compensation... is that the owner of the condemned property must be made whole but is not entitled to more." Id. at 145 ...


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