How We Turned a Worthless Offer Into a Worthwhile Nest Egg
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Donald Coats always tried to live his life the right way.
The way you're supposed to. He lived by hard work, integrity, and a good attitude. He did right by his family, right by his fellow man, his country.
And, as owner of Leo's Seafood in Durham, Donald (affectionately known as "Leo") did right by his customers and his community. For 37 years. That is, until one day, he was given 30 days to halt his life's work and close his business so the state could widen Alston Avenue in Durham.
Here is Leo's motivating and heart-warming story - a story that poignantly illustrates why we fight for property owner's rights to fair and just compensation.
Leo grew up on a farm - born in the very home he was raised in. "The doctor got stuck in the mud on his way to deliver me. Dad had to pull him out," he laughed.
Instead of playing sports like many of his boyhood friends, he had to work the farm every day after school. He wanted to quit school but his mother wouldn't hear of it. Leo graduated, and joined the National Guard. He married his high school sweetheart, Dudley, in 1964. They raised three daughters - a teacher, a nurse, and a paralegal.
Leo's Seafood - a Beloved Durham Staple
37 years ago, young Leo and Dudley were offered the opportunity to buy a seafood market at the corner of Alston Avenue and Liberty Street in Durham. Leo knew the business. He had worked for his brother-in-law at his seafood restaurant, and owned his own refrigerated truck with which he delivered fresh seafood throughout North Carolina.
The sellers had opened Leo's Seafood two months before they offered it to Leo. But, they didn't know the business and were running out of money. Leo purchased the property and operated Leo's Seafood out of the same location for the next 37 years.
He prospered. "You could buy your fresh fish or order a seafood sandwich," Leo said with pride. When the business overwhelmed his parking lot, he bought the duplex behind him, tore it down, and built a larger parking lot.
In 37 years, Durham changed a lot. When Leo bought Leo's Seafood, Durham was prospering. He watched it slowly decline. And now he is watching its renaissance.
He is no longer young. At 73, he was still working "seven days a week, even on Sundays." He never cut corners. Selling fresh fish out of the same location for 37 years can tell you a lot about man's character. Leo and Dudley were respected and in many cases loved by their customers.
Will They or Won't They Widen Alston?
In 2004, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) announced it was going to widen Alston Avenue in Durham. To widen Alston Avenue the NCDOT planned to tear down Leo's Seafood. Leo discovered he was going to lose his business.
He made peace and planned to close. Three or so years later, the NCDOT changed its mind and cancelled the project. Leo reversed course, ramped back-up, and continued working.
The 2008 recession was hard on the country and hard on Leo. People who are financially insecure think twice before buying fresh fish for their family. In 2010 Leo put the property up for sale. A local Realtor and speculator offered to buy it. They signed a contract. But before the property could be sold the NCDOT changed its mind again. They were, after all, going to widen Alston Avenue and tear down Leo's Seafood. The developer backed out of the contract. Yet instead of moving forward with the widening, the NCDOT started treading water. Yes, the project was still going to happen, but when.
Other buyers considered the property. Other buyers walked away.
In 2014, after treading water for four years, the NCDOT finally condemned Leo's Seafood. They took a third of his property and tore down the building. Leo lost his livelihood and his retirement income that he and Dudley had painstakingly grown from nothing for 37 years. And the NCDOT offered him pennies on the dollar.
NCDOT Gives Leo's a Low Value Despite Clear Growth
"When that appraiser from the NCDOT walked in, he never said two or three words to me. He just went over and looked around and took pictures. And that was it," Leo recalled.
"I could see [that amount] wasn't going to last," Leo said. He began to worry.
Remember the duplex? The NCDOT appraised Leo's Seafood as if it were two separate lots; one housing a building and one housing a parking lot. They pointed out that each of the properties by itself was, by modern standards, tiny. They talked about how bad and how poor the neighborhood was. They talked about how the building from one lot actually encroached on the other lot making each less valuable.
Leo came to us in real distress. His labor of 37 years had been taken, destroyed, and called worthless. He did not understand how, but he knew something was wrong.
The first thing we did was force the NCDOT to treat the lots as a single property containing a restaurant and parking lot. This took a lot of pre-litigation planning to avoid a trap for the unwary. And it required the help of a judge who ordered the NCDOT to combine the properties.
How We Got Nearly 3x the DOT's Initial Offer
Then we built a case around the fact that Leo owned a corner property at one of the busiest streets in Durham, an intersection with 19,000 cars per day driving past it on Alston Avenue and 6,000 cars per day on Liberty Street. The seafood market was built of cinderblock and could be refitted for another restaurant including a national chain. We showed that there was a relatively new grocery store chain across the street and two large neighborhoods under construction within a short walking distance of the property.
The case took a week to try. The jury - some of whom had been regulars at Leo's Seafood - returned a verdict requiring the NCDOT to pay Leo nearly three times the NCDOT's original offer.
Now, Leo and Dudley have some breathing room. "Me and my wife have never taken a vacation, so when we get squared away, we're going to take a true vacation."
"Jason Wouldn't Take No for an Answer"
Attorney Jason Campbell, formerly with the NCDOT handled Leo's case. "I'm so proud of Jason, I don't know what to do," Leo said. "He was the toughest I've ever seen - wouldn't take no for an answer. He would keep digging until he got what he wanted. And I'd recommend him to anybody the DOT's messing with."