GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - If a government entity wants your land, you may have little choice in how much you're paid. If negotiations fail, governments use a legal process called eminent domain to acquire land for public projects.
When the Harrison County Utility Authority needed to put in a sewer vent off Daugherty Road in Long Beach, it needed some of Barry Neyrey's land. The Utility Authority has the power to take the land once the property is appraised.
The Harrison County Utility Authority offered Barry Neyrey $12,000 for the property.
What was his reaction when he learned of the land appraisal?
"'What?' That was basically it," Neyrey said. "It seemed awful low and I had to think about it for a while, and in the process of thinking about it I just didn't respond. I thought they would get in touch with me and talk about it, but never did. I didn't go get a lawyer until after they filed suit for eminent domain."
Neyrey hired Attorney Gary White, who's represented two other land owners in battles with the utility authority.
In each case, White said the utility district's offer and the fair market value of the land were thousands and thousands of dollars apart.
"It certainly looks like these appraisals have been low-balled," stated White.
He said the court settlements back up that claim.
In 2009, George Flurry was offered $14,400 for his property on Daugherty Road in Long Beach. In 2013, Flurry settled for $27,560.14.
In 2011 the Harrison County Utility Authority appraised Armand Weilbacher's property between Red Creek Road and 28th street at $20,900. In 2013, Weilbacher settled out of court for $100,000.
Barry Neyrey's original offer was $12,000. He ended up with a settlement for $41,250.
"It was obvious to me they were just low balling people," Neyrey said. "When I got another appraisal on my own, I found out how much they were low balling people, and so I felt completely vindicated when we made a settlement."
Everett Ladner is one of the appraisers for the Harrison County Utility Authority. He's handling the appraisals for a major wastewater project.
He didn't want to be interviewed on camera and said, "I do about 300 appraisals every year and we try to give the fair market value for the property. About 95 to 98 percent of the people agree to the appraisal or settle; we just can't please everyone."
Richard Hobgood wasn't pleased with the $1.5 million he was offered for land on Shorecrest Road in Biloxi where the Harrison County Utility Authority built a multimillion dollar sewer plant. The authority used eminent domain to gain control of the land.
According to Utility district documents WLOX News obtained, the appraiser put a value of $2.1 million on Hobgood's land in January 2008. Hobgood said he was never presented with that document.
Hobgood was presented a different document, dated October 2008, an appraisal offer of a little more than a million dollars for the land.
The Harrison County Utility Authority came back with another document dated September 2009, and Hobgood was offered $1.533 million.
Hobgood never agreed to any of the utility authority's offers. The case is now in court, slated for trial in April 2014.
Attorney Gary White says he sees a disturbing pattern.
"What bothers me is... if these clients that I represented, accepted these original offers from the Utility Authority, they would have lost substantial money. I think the Utility Authority has handled hundreds of these cases and probably the majority of them were settled without a lawyer getting involved. I have to wonder... how much money people have lost by not challenging them?"