Trial begins over value of property where United Flight 93 crashed on 9/11

By Rich Lord Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Gordon Felt, the president of Families of Flight 93, nails a stake into the ground marking the exterior wall of the new visitors center in Stonycreek, Somerset County, in September. Michael Henninger, Post-Gazette

Gordon Felt, the president of Families of Flight 93, nails a stake into the ground marking the exterior wall of the new visitors center in Stonycreek, Somerset County, in September. Michael Henninger, Post-Gazette

History and tragedy dropped out of the sky onto Michael Svonavec’s property, and he is in federal court today to argue that he was paid a mere fraction of what his land was worth.

Mr. Svonavec’s company, Svonavec Inc., owned a 275-acre parcel in Stonycreek, the same place United Airlines Flight 93 crashed on September 11, 2001. The property remained a crime scene, off limits to him, until 2005, and was also the scene of National Park Service improvements.

It remained in his name until the Department of the Interior condemned it under its eminent domain rights in 2009.

In the meantime, Mr. Svonavec testified this morning, he put together detailed plans for a museum and visitor’s center, with parking and roads and other infrastructure improvements which would be run in part by a nonprofit organization.

“This was a very simple project,” he told a panel of three commissioners appointed by U.S. District Judge Donetta W. Ambrose.

It posed “much less risk than many projects that I’ve put capital into,” he said, adding that he had led complex housing and coal mining ventures before.

He estimated that for costs approaching $1 million, he could have created a building, road, parking lot and infrastructure that would have attracted 200,000 to 300,000 people per year. It would have cost just under $1 million a year to operate and would have had revenue of $2 million to $3 million a year.

He said the resulting value of the property was around $25 million.

According to court filings in the case, the government put the value of the property at $611,000 and paid that amount to Mr. Svonavec’s company.

The Families of Flight 93 paid him an additional $750,000 for expenses he incurred.

Mr. Svonavec’s appraiser put the property’s value at $23.3 million.

Judge Ambrose is overseeing the trial and the commissioners will decide the value.

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