Court cuts $100K from Portland's debt to waterfront owner

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PORTLAND — A Superior Court judge last week reduced by almost $100,000 the amount Portland owes a waterfront property owner who successfully sued the city over its taking of a rail easement by eminent domain.

In June, the City Council authorized payment of about $967,000 to the Portland Co. Now the city will only have to pay about $870,000.

The council authorization came after a Cumberland County Superior Court jury awarded the Portland Co. $795,000, more than 150 times the $5,000 the city paid for the easement.

Included in that judgment was more than $200,000 in prejudgment interest, which accrued during several legal challenges.

But Justice Thomas D. Warren on Aug. 15 drastically reduced the interest penalty, saying the city only owed for about 3 1/2 years, rather than the full six years the case was litigated.

Michael Traister, one of the attorney’s representing the Portland Co., said his team has 21 days from the ruling to decide whether to appeal.

“We’re obviously disappointed the full amount of interest was not awarded and we’re looking at our options,” Traister said. “I think there are Constitutional principles at issue.”

Traister said he believes there is legal precedent that the right to interest is part of the right to just compensation.

“We have concerns the trial court did not adequately consider those aspects fo the case,” he said.

City Attorney Gary Wood said the city saved more than $96,000 as a result of the ruling.

Wood said the judge was probably swayed by the city’s argument that prejudgment interest should have been calculated starting from a Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruling on Sept. 13, 2009, that the taking of the easement by eminent domain was legal.

The Portland Co., however, argued that interest should be calculated from the date the original lawsuit was filed on July 6, 2005.

“We are happy with  the judgment that came down on Aug. 15,” Wood said.

Wood said the final payment of nearly $75,000 was made to the Portland Co. on Friday, bringing the cost of the easement to nearly $870,000.

In June, city officials said it has cost the city about $180,000 to litigate the more than 6-year-old case.

Wood said he expects legal fees for the latest challenge to be a “four-figure number,” well below the award.

“This last issue, for certain, was worth litigating,” he said. “It was definitely beneficial to us and the taxpayers financially.”

Wood, however, said the city is still upset with the jury’s original award. But he acknowledged the complex issue of determining the value of an easement to connect “nonexistent” railroad tracks to a “nonexistent” station.

“We really thought it was inconsistent with the facts,” he said. “That being said, you know going into a jury trial that the bottom is one limit and the sky is the other limit.”

Wood said it is not clear when the city would begin marketing the more than three-acre, triangular parcel north of Hancock, Hanover and Fore streets.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings

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