City of Walla Walla serves mall owners with lawsuit

Walla Walla Town Center LLC will have those 20 days to respond to the Superior Court filing.

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WALLA WALLA - Owners of the obliterated Blue Mountain Mall property were officially served Friday with an abatement suit from the city of Walla Walla, starting a 20-day clock for owners to respond or possibly make way for the city to get access to and clean up the property.

City Attorney Tim Donaldson said he served the property owners at their Bellevue office just after 1 p.m.

The move is the latest step in numerous attempts by the city to get compliance from the owners whose transformation of the former enclosed shopping center into an open-air destination for national retail chains came to a standstill three years ago and has sat in rubble ever since.

Serving representatives of ownership company Walla Walla Town Center LLC has been a two-week process. A server arrived at the Bellevue address for operation July 8 but found the doors locked.

Donaldson went himself Friday and said he initially was greeted by Greg Erickson, who is listed as a manager, member and registered agent for the limited liability company. Erickson is reportedly the son-in-law of developer Winston Bontrager, who is believed to be the principal behind Walla Walla Town Center.

Bontrager emerged from the office shortly after Donaldson arrived Friday.

In a telephone interview Saturday, Donaldson said Bontrager told him the reconstruction of the mall property in Walla Walla is expected to begin again soon. He reportedly told Donaldson that he has been working on closing loans for the project; that bankrupt real-estate magnate Michael R. Mastro is no longer a financial partner in the project; and that his own financial issues with the Internal Revenue Service are being taken care of.

In August 2010, Bontrager and others involved with his real estate development firm had been suspected by the IRS of failing to report nearly $25 million in income from development projects on the west side of the state.

Donaldson said Bontrager told him contractors on the Blue Mountain Mall project are expected to meet with city officials sometime this week to sort out details of the project.

Nevertheless, Donaldson said Saturday he plans to move forward with the legal process, which also includes plans this week to file a summary judgement on a previous local improvement district foreclosure related to the mall property. Assessments from a local improvement district formed to help extend Poplar Street when the mall was originally constructed have gone unpaid by Walla Walla Town Center.

He said the city wants to see successful improvements at the commercial property, but he will continue to seek assistance from the courts in the meantime.

"If something does happen (with development) - great," Donaldson said. "But we're not going to delay anything we're doing because of something they tell us they're going to do."

He said the city intends to keep pressing the matter.

Walla Walla Town Center LLC will have those 20 days to respond to the Superior Court filing.

Whether the defendants meet that deadline or not, doesn't mean abatement would occur quickly. Civil processes can be lengthy.

City officials have said the property has devolved into a health and safety concern. The city is asking for a Superior Court judge to issue a warrant to enter and clean up the property.

Donaldson has said Walla Walla Town Center did not respond to a civil violation notice issued in April or an opportunity to appeal an order from the Walla Walla hearing examiner to abate the nuisance conditions by June 17.

The suit was initially filed July 8 in Superior Court. The 20-day response period could not start, however, until owners were served.

In the Walla Walla County Superior Court suit filed earlier this month, the city cited four categories of violation:

The stalled redevelopment site has "an extensive amount of junk, litter and debris," which has been allowed to accumulate; the site perimeter fence contains several portions that are falling down or have gaps or holes; the free-standing walls from uncompleted demolition of the mall are unstable and their structural integrity is questionable; and graffiti has been applied to walls and surfaces within the site.

The city is asking a judge to restrain Town Center from allowing the nuisance conditions to continue, allow the city to obtain a warrant to enter the property and clean it up, assess Town Center all expenses and order it to pay civil penalties.

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