Eminently experienced: Lawyer has worked both sides in the field of eminent domain

 By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Imagine airplanes taking off and landing using the airspace “easement” that starts a mere 3 feet above your roof – and an airport authority offers minimal “just compensation.” 

In a challenging case, attorney Kirby Albright used a bright yellow yardstick in his closing argument to demonstrate how close planes were permitted to fly over a client’s house. He and his team, with an expert real estate appraiser, put forward the position this was a “total take” of the property, and the airport needed to buy the client’s house at full market value. 

“At the close of the multi-day trial, the jury quickly came back with a verdict of a ‘total take’ and the airport had to purchase the property at its full market value, over $300,000,” says Albright, a Lansing attorney with Fraser Trebilcock, and an expert in the field of eminent domain.

In the course of a career spanning more than 30 years, Albright has had a number of eminent domain landowner cases related to airport expansion projects in and around Michigan. In another 7-day jury trial involving air rights for the safe operation of an adjoining airport, the City of Charlotte put forward that the sum of $10,400 was full and complete just compensation for a vacant parcel of land in proximity to other commercial developments. The case, involving the testimony of a number of expert witnesses, focused on the “highest and best use” of the parcel, the impact of the “taking” on the parcel, and the proper amount of just compensation to be awarded to the property owners. 

“We, by way of our witnesses, put forward that the developmental potential of the property was impacted by this taking and considerably more was due to the landowner because the building heights for commercial buildings would be limited,” Albright says. 

The jury agreed, bringing in a verdict of $275,000. 

“These cases illustrate the value of working with good experts and having a sound and fair position to put forward to the jury, as opposed to coming across as unfair or not concerned about the landowner’s plight, if you are representing the condemning agency, or greedy or over- reaching if you are representing the landowner,” Albright explains.

The first and only lawyer in his family, neither of Albright’s parents had college degrees, but education was heavily stressed. 

“Even in grade school, I talked about wanting to be a lawyer because I formed the impression, from reading – and candidly from watching TV – that it seemed lawyers were always involved in exciting situations and events,” he says.  

After earning an undergrad degree in criminal justice from Michigan State University, he earned his juris doctor, cum laude, from Cooley Law School, where the class size was about 150 students. 

“Coming from MSU, I really, truly enjoyed the smaller class size and the chance to get to know and connect with my classmates,” says Albright, who served on the Cooley Board of Governors for 24 years.

After 20 years with a Lansing firm, he joined Fraser Trebilcock in May 2000; and this past December was elected to the Board of Directors, to serve as secretary.

Albright – named a “Michigan Super Lawyer” in 2011 – has been involved in all kinds of litigation, including divorce, personal injury, employment, probate litigation, construction law and eminent domain. 

“That background allowed me to become exposed to a number of trial and litigation skills including negotiation, compromise, use and cross examination of expert witnesses, and the need to be able to understand engineering information and real estate appraisals,” he notes. 

According to Albright, eminent domain is a unique area of law – in that the primary objective of counsel of both parties is to take the actions necessary to make sure a landowner affected by a public improvement project receives full and complete just compensation. To that end, counsel must review drawings and plans for the project and have an appropriate understanding of the nature and extent of the project, and more importantly, the implications of those plans (or lack thereof) on the landowner’s property. 

Counsel also must work with expert witnesses, mainly real estate appraisers, to arrive at a full and fair evaluation of the just compensation due to the landowner – and then convince a jury why the amount of just compensation they are putting forward is truly fair, just, and appropriate. 

“To me, the overall objective of developing a position that’s intended to be fair to both sides, is what makes this area of the law very interesting and fulfilling,” Albright says.

While he has several years’ experience in representing landowners, primarily in public improvement projects related to the expansion of airports, for the last two years Albright has been assisting a company acquire right-of-way for a pipeline. The different cases have given him background and experience for both landowners and condemning agencies. 

“By working both sides, I’ve been exposed to all kinds of files and situations,” he says. 

Eminent domain cases can be a very emotional situation for landowners if their residence is impacted, he notes. 

“In my experience, business owners are more focused on making sure they get a fair amount of just compensation for commercial properties, and the process is much less emotional.”

Albright is among a limited number of lawyers practicing in the area of eminent domain, primarily because the work is dependent on the number of public improvement projects. 

“If there are a lot of new roads or other public projects being built, then the work is plentiful – however, given recent economic times, public improvement projects are few and far between, and that impacts whether or not attorneys want to venture into this area of the law,” he says. “I really enjoy eminent domain and truly appreciate my good fortune to be able to work in this area of the law as much as I do.”  

A native of Oak Park and attendee of Ferndale Schools, Albright now makes his home in Delta Township on the west side of Lansing. He and Theresa, his wife of 27 years, have two daughters, Tessa and Alyssa. In his leisure time, he enjoys running, golf, and athletic events of all kinds; and also does volunteer work through his church.

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