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Sonoma County airport expansion holdout says county 'stealing' family land

  • Angelique Ritter, left, on Tuesday helps her brother Skylar Ritter, 11 and his friend Ben Imrie, standing, off the family pond on the fringe of the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport. The airport will expand on to the land, which the airport is purchasing in a forced sale. (KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat)

For almost 30 years, Barbara “Penny” Napoli has lived on 6 acres near the Sonoma County airport, where she's tended Arabian horses, raised swans and geese and enjoyed a country lifestyle, despite the noisy airplanes landing and taking off.

But because of a runway extension project, the county is wielding the power of eminent domain to buy the property, not only against the 73-year-old woman's wishes, but at a price her family says is a fraction of its worth.

“I feel like they're stealing it,” said her daughter Rebecca Ritter, who notes that the property was assessed by the County Assessor's office at $475,000 until last year, yet the county is offering to pay $135,000 for it.

“We've been paying taxes based on that,” Ritter said. “I find out it means nothing if the government comes to the door. They don't take that into consideration.”

The county has sued Ritter and her family trust that owns the Sanders Road property just north of the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport to compel them to sell.

A trial is set to start Friday in Sonoma County court, with possible jury selection next week. The debate is not whether the government can force the family to sell, because the law allows it.

At issue is the fair market value of the land. That seemingly straightforward question already has helped fill a foot-thick court file since the lawsuit was instigated a year ago.

“It is a complex case,” Airport Manager Jon Stout acknowledged Tuesday.

Stout noted that eminent domain is typically used by the county to take small pieces of property for road projects.

He said as part of the airport project, the county used eminent domain to purchase two neighboring parcels on Sanders Road totaling 15 acres, owned by another trust. But he said there was a negotiated settlement for the purchase.

The court proceedings are not halting the $53.8 million runway extension and safety upgrade construction project set to begin in August.

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