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Forest Grove sues former law firm

Suit claims lawyers erred when they guided city in condemnation case


The city of Forest Grove filed suit in Multnomah County Circuit Court last week against the law firm that advised the city during a failed 2005 attempt to condemn land for parks.

Last November, the city settled a lawsuit brought by Hally and Mary Haworth, who for six years fought the city's efforts to obtain a parcel of land they own at the southern edge of Forest Grove.

In its lawsuit, the city's attorney, Michael Greene, argues that the effort to condemn the Haworth property failed because of faulty advice from the law firm Jordan Schrader, now doing business as Jordan Ramis.

The city is seeking $528,004 in its suit.

A spokesman for Jordan Ramis declined to comment on the case.

The city's suit is the latest in a long, complicated story.

City officials had long eyed the Haworth land, at the south end of Elm Street, on the east side of Highway 47, for recreation uses. After the Haworths bought the parcel for $1.65 million in August 2005, the city made them an offer of $1.9 million, but the Haworths rejected the offer. The city council then authorized staff to begin condemnation proceedings that October.

When that legal avenue stalled in late 2006, Washington County Circuit Court Judge Mark Gardner ordered the two sides into mediation. Those talks bogged down in December 2008 after the city refused to reimburse the Haworths for their legal fees.

Judge Gardner ruled that because the city abandoned condemnation proceedings and mediation, the Haworths were due nearly $186,000 for legal bills, which the city paid in June 2009.

Four months later, the Haworths filed a lawsuit in federal court asking for $579,316, pegged to lost rental income and potential income from nursery sales because the land was locked up in court proceedings.

Last year, the city opted to settle the federal suit, giving the Haworths $300,000. Half of that payment was covered by the city's insurance company.

In the new suit, filed by the city July 17, Greene claims that while Jordan Ramis presented itself as a firm with expertise in land use law, it failed to provide adequate guidance to the city leading up to and after the condemnation effort.

At the heart of the suit is a phrase in the initial resolution passed by the Forest Grove City Council that allowed the city to sue for condemnation of the land.

The city wanted to condemn the Haworth land in order to build a park. But the resolution the city council passed authorizing it to go to court suggested the city had other uses in mind as well.

Resolution 2005-49 included a passage that said the city may "sell or lease for private development any portion not needed for park and recreation needs." That weakened the city's case for condemnation in court, argues Greene.

Condemnation generally is limited by the courts to narrow cases when the public interest outweighs private interest in ownership of a parcel. Governments generally can't condemn property to sell off to another owner.

Instead of realizing the error and dropping the condemnation suit, Jordan Ramis had the city pass a second resolution that removed any mention of selling land to private developers, according to Greene. That wasn't good enough, Greene argues.

Forest Grove ended its contract with Jordan Ramis in 2006. Since then, the city has contracted with the law firm of Beery, Elsner and Hammond for legal services.

— Additional reporting by John Schrag



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