A year ago, Patricia Ghiglino's two-story, yellow-brick art studio in a drab, largely industrial neighborhood in Southeast Washington was worth $654,000 to the District government, which collected taxes based on that assessment.
This month, the city, clearing the way for a new baseball stadium for the Washington Nationals, offered Ghiglino nearly $1.8 million for the property. Her response?
"We're not accepting this offer. No way," she said. "We're definitely going to court."
As District development officials open negotiations with the 23 property owners at the 20-acre stadium site near the Navy Yard and South Capitol Street SE, they are finding that many do not intend to leave without a fight. Although a recent Supreme Court ruling in a Connecticut eminent domain case strengthened the hand of governments in seizing land, more than half of the property owners said they plan to prove that the city's offers are inadequate. At least a half-dozen lawyers have been retained.
After a five-month assessment, city planners have offered the property owners more than $95 million for land that was assessed two years ago at $32 million. The city has given the property owners 30 days to respond or face eviction.
Although the owners declined to say how much money they plan to seek, they argued that their neighbors just beyond the stadium site have been making lucrative deals with developers who are convinced that the ballpark district will one day be a cash cow. The biggest profit, the owners said, should go to owners who are being forced to relocate.
"We want enough money to buy back in the same stadium district," Ghiglino said. The city is offering her about $188 per square foot, she said, but "north of my property, things are selling for $350 to $400 per square foot. The city's offer is not fair compensation."
City officials want to clear the land and remediate environmental problems, then begin construction in March, completing the stadium for the Nationals' 2008 season.
Stephen M. Green, the city's development director, who is overseeing the negotiations, said he expects to secure titles to the properties by the end of the year. If the city is unable to purchase all the properties, Green said, officials will place the money in a court-monitored trust and seize the land through eminent domain. The court will decide the sale price.
Under eminent domain law, the District is required to pay owners only as much as the properties would be worth if there were no stadium project. City officials said the stadium project has sparked developers' speculation for land just beyond the ballpark site.
"I've never met any owner who didn't think his property was worth more than the offer," Green said. If owners can prove through independent assessments that the city's offers were low, the District might increase its bids, he said.
Green said that in making assessments, contractors hired by the District considered property values in other areas in the city because sale prices for the land around the stadium site had skyrocketed after the plans were unveiled.
"We looked at other locations where there was not as much speculation," he said.
One family with property inside and outside the stadium site was able to use the speculation to its advantage.
In the spring, the family sold a 21/2-acre parcel to a developer for $24 million but made the sale conditional on the developer also buying a half-acre plot on the stadium site for $6 million. The city is offering the developer $4.4 million for the same half-acre plot.
Nevertheless, some property owners have argued that recent redevelopment at the Navy Yard and plans for a new Transportation Department office nearby had created high demand for land before the stadium was announced.
"This area did not need government intervention [for a stadium] to make it go," said Joseph Lukaesko, who has owned and operated a car repair shop on the site for more than 30 years. The city has offered him about $1.7 million, and he said he is consulting with attorneys before deciding what to do.
Owners of some of the largest properties, including an asphalt plant, an 89,000-square-foot warehouse, a trash transfer station and a parking lot that has been rented to Metro for buses, have retained attorneys and are poised to fight the city for more money.
Several D.C. Council members, noting that the cost of the stadium land already has soared over previous estimates, said they fear that legal battles could swell the price of the estimated $535 million stadium project.
When Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) announced the arrival of a baseball team and plans for the stadium, his aides estimated land costs at $65 million. The city's chief financial officer, Natwar M. Gandhi, put the estimate at $77 million this spring in a report for the council.
But the offers sent to property owners this month were based on a new assessment conducted by contractors, who put the total value at more than $95 million.
"We'll see what the final negotiated numbers are," said council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who has been a sharp critic of the stadium's public cost. "We can't stop the stadium, but we'll be watching the expenditures and trying to keep them to a minimum."
As part of the negotiation process, the city has been trying to help property owners relocate. But progress has been slow. Officials are having trouble with zoning restrictions and residential opposition to new locations for the trash transfer station and several adult-oriented businesses, which have expressed concern that they will not be welcome elsewhere.
Ghiglino said the city tried to persuade her to move to Dupont Down Under, a failed project a decade ago in which developers tried to open a food court below Dupont Circle. The site has been boarded up.
"It was a dungeon," said Ghiglino, who toured it with District officials. "There's nothing there. It's full of trash. And what about ventilation? I heard they had ventilation problems, and I have art projects that need a good ventilation."
The asphalt plant faces difficult circumstances because after it opened, the city passed laws prohibiting new ones. Carol Mitten, director of the property management office, said officials have lobbied the zoning commission to allow the plant to be moved to another place in the city. The case is pending.
The District has a pressing interest in maintaining the asphalt plant, which sells products to the city's Department of Transportation. But even if the commission allows the plant to move within the District, city officials have determined just one location for it: D.C. Village, a sparse campus in Southwest. Owners of the plant have objected, saying the site is too remote.
For Kenneth B. Wyban, a retired Army officer, the prospect of losing his property is particularly personal because he is the only homeowner living on the site.
His property was assessed at $241,000 for tax purposes, and Wyban was offered about $1.2 million. But he said he intends to go to court because the property was meant to double as his retirement business. He has worked for years to restore his pre-Civil War house with a view of the U.S. Capitol dome, and he had hoped to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast.
"I feel like they're ripping something out of me," Wyban said. If he gets enough money, he plans to buy houses in Florida and Ohio, where his parents live.
"I used to think I'd always live here," he said. "Now I don't really want to stay. I haven't been treated very well."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.