One rancher in the northwest has begun to be railroaded by the Washington State Department of Transportation. One nearly warm day last July, a representative from WDOT visited Victor Khvoroff requesting that he sign a “permit allowing survey crews onto his ranch.” He said he’d think about it. Then, not a full week later Khvoroff discovered survey crews digging holes on his land without permission. He asked the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office to escort them away. But WDOT seems determined to have the last say with Khvoroff, as My San Antonio Online reports. And his situation, though by no means typical, is one that real estate lawyers in Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and other ranching western states might do well to pay attention to as urban population grows and begins creeping outward from city centers.
Khvoroff’s problem—and WDOT’s, too—includes a river and a road. The land between the Cowlitz River and U.S. Highway 12 is the narrow stretch that WDOT is after, now leveraging a claim of eminent domain to forcibly purchase the land in the hopes of better protecting the highway as it has become more heavily trafficked in recent years. Real estate lawyers in Utah working with ranchers and commercial property and ranch land attorneys all over the west see plights like Khvoroff’s with increasing frequency.
WDOT has made statements of the delicate balance between protecting the environment—i.e. being careful of how they alter the riverbank so as not to disturb the ecosystem—and the interests of the highway, so as not to let it flood when the Cowlitz changes course. But what about Khvoroff? Who has entered the arena to protect his interests as a cattle rancher these last 24 years? He argues that the strip of land claimed by WDOT is “the only safe access he has to get animals out of the fields during high floods.” And of course, as real estate lawyers in Utah like R. Tee Spjute could tell you is typical of processes like these, WDOT has refused to comment on the matter, purportedly “because they wanted to respect the process.”
Spjute and other real estate lawyers in Utah, Nevada, Colorado and much of the western U.S. where ranchers are coming into clashes with expanding urbanization more and more know that Khvoroff is probably in need of good legal representation here, as he attempts to stall the eminent domain claim and negotiate issues of liability should the Cowlitz overflow the land (that he currently still owns) and flood the high way, bringing along some of the potentially damaged WDOT fencing, etc. Khvoroff’s attorney should help him navigate what can be a complex maze of permits, easements, contracts, and scheduled construction projects on the land that more than one party is claiming rights to.
Most recently, and not unsurprisingly, when Khvoroff and WDOT couldn’t come to an agreement, the strip of land between Hwy 12 and the Cowlitz entered the condemnation process. This issue may be headed to the attorney general’s office, who would represent WDOT. And while “eminent domain condemnations are rare,” the struggle against them that Khvoroff is facing, for example, can be an uphill battle.