Property owners on edge over status of bridge plan

By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

As eminent domain attorneys, Alan Ackerman and Darius Dynkowski have grown accustomed to the waiting game.

It's an occupational hazard in condemnation cases, which sometimes can keep clients in legal limbo for years as they await a satisfactory settlement.

The list of success stories for Ackerman and Dynkowski is as long as some of their cases, one of which came to a conclusion in the spring of 2009 after a nearly 18-year legal journey.

That case, the battle with the Michigan Department of Transportation over rightful compensation for a consortium of property owners affected by work on the M-5 highway corridor in Oakland County, was atypical for sure, Ackerman and Dynkowski admit. Yet, it also was indicative of the lengths that the partners will go in serving the needs of their clients, many of whom take on the persona of "David" in the battle with the "Goliath" of government.

Ackerman and Dynkowski certainly hope that a current case, involving more than 30 Detroit property owners in the path of the proposed new bridge between the U.S. and Canada, will follow a far shorter legal path, although there are few encouraging signs of a swift resolution to the matter.

"You have to be prepared for the long haul in cases like this," said Ackerman, who has gained prominence as one of the top eminent domain attorneys in the country over the course of a 41-year legal career. "This case has been complicated by politics and debate over funding for the bridge."

In the meantime, property owners like Hugh Graham, who is the third generation of his family to operate a funeral home on Junction Street in Detroit, is among those caught in a web of uncertainty.

"Like everyone else around here, I would like to know what the heck is going on with the bridge project," said Graham, who owns the Don Graham Funeral Home in Detroit. "After the election, Governor Snyder said it was going to be 'full speed ahead' on the project, but nothing has happened since. It's been a good five years since we first got word that our property could be condemned for the project."

Graham, whose grandfather started the business back in the early 1920s, said that the current case isn't the first eminent domain storm that the funeral home has had to weather.

"We originally were located on Lafayette, but that property was condemned back in the late '60s to make way for I-75," Graham said. "We relocated to our current site in 1969."

Last June, U.S. and Canadian officials announced a deal for the New International Trade Crossing. Under terms of the agreement, Canada pledged to pick up Michigan's $550 million share of the cost of the construction project, recovering its investment through bridge tolls.

According to proponents of the new bridge, approximately $120 billion worth of goods cross the Detroit River each year via the Ambassador Bridge, a span owned by Manuel "Matty" Maroun. Project supporters say that the new bridge will link the span with expressways in Canada, eliminating a bottleneck of truck traffic through residential streets in Windsor. The new bridge would be located approximately two miles south of the Ambassador Bridge.

Maroun, of course, has spent heavily to derail the bridge proposal, even backing a ballot initiative last November that would have required a public vote for the project to proceed. His efforts went for naught, however, as voters soundly defeated the ballot proposal last fall.

The estimated $1 billion bridge project is expected to take five years to complete and could create upwards of 10,000 construction and related jobs. The U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, must give his approval of the international agreement before the project can begin, according to attorney Ackerman.

"That is what everyone is waiting for right now, the Secretary of State's OK," Ackerman said. "It could come soon or it could be delayed indefinitely. Nobody has an idea of when a decision will be made, which makes it especially frustrating for those whose livelihoods are at stake here. I can't imagine him not approving it. A second bridge is needed to promote increased trade and to reduce all the truck traffic that goes over the Ambassador Bridge."

Dynkowski, now in his 17th year of practice since graduating from the former Detroit College of Law, said that some 500 acres of property will be needed for the bridge plaza and highway ramps on the U.S. side of the proposed span.

"There is a real mixture of businesses in that area, retail, industrial, and commercial," Dynkowski said, noting that several residential neighborhoods also will be impacted.

"The thing to remember in cases like this is that no one ever gets out of these situations whole," Dynkowski said. "The cost is considerable to every business or homeowner that has their property taken for the public good.

"Our job is to ensure that our clients receive fair valuation for their property," he added. "Unfortunately, when projects like this are delayed, it puts even more of an burden on those businesses and property owners. They are caught in the middle, not knowing whether to invest in their property or whether they should just sit tight and wait for things to play out. It is a stressful situation for all of them. Several of our clients have expansion plans or would like to invest in new equipment, but they can't go ahead until this situation gets resolved."

Count Graham among them.

"We just paid off the debt on the business, so we own it free and clear and would like to mark that milestone by expanding it for future growth purposes," said Graham, whose wife, Tammy, also is licensed funeral home director. "But in a situation like this, who is going to give a condemned business a loan?"

Published: Thu, Apr 11, 2013