By Danny Bernardini
A Fairfield man may end up doing battle in federal court against Travis Air Force Base, which is seeking to take 13 acres of his land under eminent domain to bolster security at the south gate of the base.
Bill Maher, 80, was served with legal papers last week giving him until Nov. 1 to cede his land to the Air Force in exchange for $261,000. If he does not, the case will head to federal court.
For years, Maher has received letters from the base regarding its efforts to claim some of his 300 acres of pasture land along Peterson Road under eminent domain for “national security.”
Maher said he would read the letters, attempt to discuss the issue with officials at Travis and, when he got little response, would wait for further word.
“It’s been about eight or 10 years they’ve been threatening me, but they change the acreage (they want) every year,” he said. “I would go along with some of their needs if they would cooperate. The letter they wrote me asked me to be willing to negotiate. It’s them that’s not willing.”
Further word, and what may turn out to be the final word, came Friday when Maher received a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice alerting him that a notice in condemnation had been filed and if he did not agree to the terms within 20 days, the case would end up in court.
Kelli Taylor, an assistant U.S. attorney, said the filing came after several notices and interaction with Maher. She said extensive appraising of the land has been done and $261,000 has been paid to the courts as compensation for Maher giving up his land.
“This was not a decision that was made overnight,” Taylor said from her Sacramento office. “The court is now involved. At any time, if he wanted to resolve it, we can.”
The Travis Public Affairs Department would not comment on the issue, providing a prepared statement instead.
“Travis AFB is working through the legal process to obtain 13 acres on the southwest corner of the installation to increase force protection of the base and local community. This ongoing effort has been in the works for over two years starting in 2004,” it reads.
The 13 acres in dispute is a strip of land about 400 feet wide and 1,200 feet long running alongside Peterson Road that Maher purchased in the early 1980s. Within the strip is cattle grazing land and a home he rents out for about $10,000 per year.
The problem for Maher is that his property is also near the south gate of Travis, an area needed for base expansion.
A copy of the condemnation documents, obtained by MediaNews, explains the acquisition as “required for both Anti-Terrorism/Force Protection and personnel safety reasons. Without this land, Travis Air Force Base will continue to lack facilities for proper commercial vehicle inspections and Security Force personnel will remain at risk.”
Maher said he understands the need to acquire some land to comply with national security, but he said the 13 acres is worth at least $800,000.
He also is angry that the land they want includes the house he rents — an issue on which he said Travis will not budge.
“They don’t indicate they would give one penny more,” Maher said. “They want the best part of the property. I don’t know what to do. I guess I’m going to have to get an attorney.”
Maher said he would like Travis to buy all his land, which he said is worth more than $2 million. But he said all attempts to negotiate with Travis fell on deaf ears.
“We all know they have the money to buy that property, rather than keep me tied up like this. They could sell the portions they don’t need,” he said. “I don’t like it at my age; I don’t want to get involved.”
Maher said there are several wrinkles involved that are making the situation difficult. The way it is proposed, the acquisition would cut off two entrances to his property, one of which is 108 feet wide, leaving him only a 30-foot-wide driveway.
“It diminishes the value of the property,” he said.
Also troubling for Maher is that 180 acres of his land is already under an easement because it’s underneath the flight path of Travis aircraft. He fears that rules relating to that easement may prevent him from building another house he can rent out.
Maher also said he had the entire 306 acres sold to a private buyer for $2.25 million, but the buyer backed out after realizing the base’s plans. He said the buyer had already submitted two $50,000 deposits that he now wants back.
Taylor confirmed that the buyer is named in the eminent domain filing but couldn’t comment on any repayment.
“That’s a determination made by the court after the value (of the land) is established,” Taylor said.
Overall, Maher said he’s as frustrated about how Travis has interacted with him as he is about losing his land.
“It just goes in one ear and out the other,” he said. “They’re the most ruthless organization I’ve ever dealt with. I couldn’t imagine a government agency treating a taxpayer this way.”
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