Empire editorial: Sweet deal for buyers, and sour for the city

Posted: Sunday, July 31, 2005

The people of Juneau deserve a good explanation as to why the city plans to sell almost a million dollars worth of land for only $375,000.

The city is planning to sell 31.5 acres near Fred Meyer to Hugh Grant, a major property owner in Juneau.

At first glance, the deal looks like the very thing that some have been calling for to ease the city's housing crunch: Sell off city land so that more affordable homes can be built.

But the big catch is that Grant would pay a mere $375,000 for a parcel assessed at $930,000.

City Lands and Resources Manager Steve Gilbertson says making the highest profit of that land is not "our highest priority." But nor should the city be practically giving the land away.

One could argue that no one else is going to buy this land and it needs to be sold to someone who may actually develop it. But Grant is a big part of the reason the land is worth little to others. He holds 12 acres of adjacent land, which offers the only real access to the larger parcel the city is considering selling.

IHH Construction bought the property in 1996 and planned to build apartments and condominiums. But it couldn't gain reasonable access to the land and the project went belly-up, according to the city. Another company tried to buy the land for $500,000, but also had problems with access.

Preventing access to another parcel is well within a property owner's legal rights. But it doesn't mean city leaders should reward Grant for making this property unusable to anyone else. If he's trying to leverage the situation so he gets the land, he should at least pay close to the million dollars the land is worth.

Assembly member Jeff Bush is right to question the sale. "It seems to me that when we buy land, we tend to pay more than it is appraised for. When we sell land, we sell it for less than it is appraised for."

Others should be challenging the sales price too. The city is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the land sale Aug. 8. City leaders should be working to get land on the market to spur new development, not to simply line the pockets of one developer.

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