Kenmore family questions eminent domain case involving culturally significant property

Mayor David Baker said he is ‘disgusted by the accusations’ regarding warehouse acquisition.

Update: this story has been updated following city of Kenmore’s withdrawal of the purchase of the property. In a press release, the city states it will pause for several months before looking for a new site for the public works facility.

The city of Kenmore has been looking for a property to house its own public works facility. But its choice of using eminent domain on a warehouse off 175th Street has led to public outcry and even backlash against the mayor for his dismissal of the owners’ concerns.

At a glance from the outside, the warehouse met the needs of the city for a public works space. After receiving a petition against the original planned location for a public works facility in a residential zone (that has several multimillion-dollar houses), the city started its search again, now for a property with proper zoning, space and affordability. With the new selection, Kenmore could use the existing warehouse, which comes with what the city says is the minimum 1.5 acres needed for growth.

But city staff may not have known what was inside. Because in this warehouse are seven small businesses — a nonprofit as well as celebrations and free dance lessons put on by the owners, the Chaipatanapongs.

In a press release Friday, Aug. 14, Kenmore stated it was no longer moving forward with the condemnation and acquisition of the property after hours of public testimony at recent city council meetings of the owners’ family and community saying that the location has cultural significance and that the city’s site selection scoring system failed to address several physical problems with the site.

The city will resume its search for a new public works facility next year.

“We appreciate all of the feedback that we received from the public,” City Manager Rob Karlinsey stated in the August press release. “We recognize the value this property has to the owners and the community— value that goes beyond the purely financial.”

A Kenmore city attorney told councilmembers — at the July 13 public hearing on the condemnation and acquisition of the Chaipatanapongs’ property — that the city would have no legal issues regarding the validity of the study. He also argued that eminent domain exists so the government can make sure it has essential facilities like a public works building, and that there would always be someone who says, ‘Don’t take mine, take somebody else’s.”

The Chaipatanapong property

Since last summer, the Chaipatanapongs have not been willing sellers for the city. That led to the city moving to acquire the property through eminent domain. The owners’ daughter, Anita Tsoi, said every lawyer they consulted told them there was nothing her family could do except try to sell for as much as possible.

In January, the owners were traveling to Thailand and got stuck there due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Being older, they weren’t able to safely travel home to the U.S. Tsoi said she told her parents about the city’s intention to buy the land from them. Her parents wanted to keep the property. Tsoi then asked the city for information on how their property was selected and received the scoring system. She spent the next months distracted by the growing pandemic and economic realities of the shutdown order, and felt there was nothing to be done.

It wasn’t until she showed the scoring system to a friend that she learned it may have had deep flaws. The city scored the Chaipatanapongs’ property among several categories, as well as four other sites. But the other sites are all adjacent lots belonging to the same property owner, Plywood Supply.

In some categories, the Plywood Supply properties received zeros, which weren’t an option on the scoring criteria. A friend of the Chaipatanapongs who said he has worked on these sorts of studies frequently with Puget Sound Energy addressed the council July 13, calling it “subjective at best.” There’s also a letter addressing their concerns with the study. The study and letter are both available below.

City-of-Kenmore-Public-Work… by Haley Ausbun on Scribd

Kim-Vik-Letter-to-Council.pdf by Haley Ausbun on Scribd

A week before the council was set to vote on the issue and hold a public hearing, another friend of Tsoi asked her if she wanted to write a letter to Kenmore City Council in opposition of the plan.

“You can do that?” Tsoi said she asked the friend. It was the first time she realized there was a way to fight the eminent domain. They spent the next week gathering those who cared about the warehouse or family and scrutinizing the scoring system and offered 44 verbal or written comments on July 13.

“We don’t know the system, and we aren’t the types to go up and talk to them about it,” Tsoi said. “For many of us, this was our first city council meeting. We were all nervous. Of course public works is important. We live in Kenmore and are affected too, but we believe we weren’t chosen fairly. That was the point we wanted to make sure they heard. “

Tsoi’s daughter, Kenmore resident Alyssa Chow, said it was awesome to see the power public input can have on a situation and that several councilmembers made her feel like her family’s story was heard. In later council meetings, concerned residents of the mobile home park and tenants of the warehouse also spoke out against the site.

“That hearing was our Hail Mary. It was truly our last fight for our property that our grandparents fought so hard for, and it’s the least we can do,” Chow said.

Chow says as a first generation Chinese-American, that warehouse is the only history she has, and that there is nothing more American than the achievements of a family immigrating here with nothing and owning their own land.

They ended up starting a business, Winsome Wood, in that warehouse in the 1980s, and later moved it to Woodinville. Now they rent parts of the building to small businesses who need space, and as a free event venue for family friends in need, including in the local Chinese and Thai communities. Chow described the free ballroom dancing lessons the Chaipatanapongs offered for fellow seniors in the warehouse, as well as Christmas and Lunar New Year events.

“On the outside it really looks like a warehouse, but I think that one room has actually created a space for the Asian community around the Puget Sound area, to have fun and also be surrounded by people of their community,” Chow said. “Growing up as an Asian American born here, I was able to bring some of my high school friends from Inglemoor and have them understand a little more about Chinese culture. It’s something that has helped me keep in touch with my cultural background.”

Council response and mayor’s apology

Screenshot of the video of the Aug. 3 Kenmore City Council Meeting. City of Kenmore YouTube page.

Screenshot of the video of the Aug. 3 Kenmore City Council Meeting. City of Kenmore YouTube page.

Chow said her family is so grateful that the city council heard their concerns and were taking time to reevaluate the decision to acquire their warehouse. But she also acknowledges that the response from city leadership was mixed.

At the July 13 meeting following public comment, several councilmembers said they would vote no or like to delay the decision. Kenmore Deputy Mayor Nigel Herbig said at the meeting that they failed to look at this decision with an equity lens, and said he thought from staff reports that the property was just a warehouse, and didn’t know it was also used for cultural events.

“That is something that might have changed my perspective months ago when we were first looking at it,” he said.

Kenmore Mayor David Baker had a different opinion from the fellow leadership. He seconded the ordinance be postponed for at least a month, but then provided a heated comment expressing his disgust for the comments made that evening.

“Personally, I am disgusted by the accusations being made here tonight. They’re totally uncalled for and totally unfair,” Baker said. “I think it’s absolutely disgusting that the community has stooped to levels like this.”

That statement during the July 13 meeting led to even more public comment in following council meetings, and fellow council statements questioning the mayor and his leadership on this topic.

For Chow and Tsoi, they said that comment made them feel their concerns were being devalued and not heard. Chow doesn’t think there was malicious intent in the city’s choice of the property, but that the history there cannot be removed from her Asian heritage and the immigrant experience.

“My life starts in Kenmore. I’ve always felt really welcomed in the city. The mayor’s comment made me take a step back and ask if this was the community I grew up in. That one sentence (he said) didn’t feel like an accurate representation of Kenmore.”

Two council meetings later, Mayor Baker apologized for his tone, but said he “did mean everything I said.”

This apology did not sit well for a few councilmembers, including Melanie O’Cain, who asked the mayor to not “diminish your contributions (to Kenmore) with continued irresponsible comments on council.”

“You’re our mayor. I never want to make a comment like this again on council,” O’Cain said.

Councilmember Corina Pfeil said she was losing faith in Mayor Baker and hoped he would practice more discretion in his words or actions in the future, or she would consider a recall vote.

Other councilmembers did not explicitly address the mayor, but emphasized the importance in thanking the public for comments and always listening, whether they agree or disagree.

Although the city is no longer acquiring the Chaipatanapong property, Tsoi and Chow said they hope the city will make sure to construct a “true study” for eminent domain cases in the future and consider that maybe cultural/community benefits be considered a category in the scoring next time. Tsoi emphasized that there will be property owners in the future with none of the resources they had to make their voices heard, who will be even more vulnerable to their history being easily missed or ignored.