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ST. PAUL-The Minnesota Department of Transportation tends to offer much less than a property is worth when it acquires private land for road building projects, forcing owners into expensive court battles to get fair value for their land, according to a report published this week in the Star Tribune, the Minneapolis-based newspaper.

In two-thirds of more than 1,200 land-value disputes settled by court-appointed commissions since the late 1980s, the commission determined that landowners deserved at least 20% more money than MnDOT first offered, according to an analysis of MnDOT’s computer records by the Star Tribune. In a third of the cases, the court award was at least double MnDOT’s initial offer.

MnDOT officials maintain they’re doing the best they can, and that appraisals involve more art than science. As people demand more and wider highways, they need to take more homes and businesses while protecting taxpayers from land speculators and cost overruns. MnDOT says they follow federal rules, basing offers on independent appraisals that MnDOT orders. Staff members examine the appraisals and certify them as fair, then base offers MnDOT makes on property on those appraisals.

During its six-month investigation, the Star Tribune reviewed MnDOT summaries on 827 condemnation cases and 4,106 “direct purchases” and settlements since 1998. The newspaper also examined an MnDOT database containing more detail on condemnations, but said many of the cases lacked complete data.

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