Eminent Domain: BTLA Determination of “Just Compensation” is “Immaterial” Upon Trial De Novo in Superior Court

Houston Holdings, LLC. v. Portsmouth
Houston Holdings, LLC. v. Portsmouth
No. 2012-570
Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The City took certain easement rights from the Plaintiff in order to build a sewer improvement. The parties could not agree on the value of the rights to be paid by the City for the taking, and the issue of “just compensation” was initially litigated in the Board of Tax and Land Appeals in accordance with RSA 498-A, the Eminent Domain statute. The city advocated for a value of $18,500 through its expert, while the plaintiff’s expert offered a value of $125,100. The BTLA determined the value to be $27,000, and the plaintiff appealed to the Superior Court.

The City sought to offer the BTLA report as evidence of value, but the report was excluded by the trial court and never seen by the jury. Following a jury trial, the jury returned a verdict in the amount of $128,111 in favor of the Plaintiff, and the City appealed.

The argument centered upon the meaning of RSA 498-A:27, which permits a party who disagrees with the BTLA determination of just compensation to petition the Superior Court to “have the damages reassessed”, and specifies that the trial shall be “de novo”. The City argued that a jury could not “reassess” the value unless it knew the initial finding of the BTLA. The Plaintiff countered that the term “de novo” meant that nothing from the initial hearing had any place in the determination of the matter by the jury.

The Supreme Court held, in accordance with its prior decisions on the meaning of the term “de novo”, that the determination from the initial hearing could not be used as evidence in the Superior Court. Rather than being an important item for the jury to consider, the determination was “immaterial” and “incompetent” because “[a] hearing de novo is conducted as if the original hearing had not taken place.”  In re Juvenile 2002-511-A, 149 N.H. 592 (2003).

Thus, in eminent domain matters that are appealed to the Superior Court, the public body exercising the power must be prepared to fully litigate the question of “just compensation” at both the BTLA and in the Superior Court as completely separate proceedings.