June 18, 2001 11:00 pm

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Union and Wallowa county officials and other members of a group seeking to purchase the railroad line between Elgin and Joseph want to get their hands on an appraisal for the line.

But that might be easier said than done, and that leaves the price tag up in the air. Is a railroad that cost just more than $25,000 in 1993 now worth $7.2 million?

I made the appraisal for ODOT (Oregon Department of Transportation) in La Grande and gave it to them; I cant reveal its contents because of the confidentiality between appraiser and client, said Jay J. DeVoe, the Portland appraiser. He said he had completed appraising the 62.58-mile rail line and its right of way about the first of the year.

Ken Patterson of the local ODOT office said the appraisal was done on behalf of the state Parks and Recreation Department, which now has the documents. He, too, cited the client-consultant confidentiality restriction on releasing the documents.

The appraisal will become a public record after a sale is completed or after the file is canceled, Patterson said.

Union County Commissioner John Howard met Friday in Salem with State Parks and Recreation officials.

Things are still in flux, Howard said, admitting the chances of buying the line are a long shot. But were working with the governors office, (House Speaker) Mark Simmons and P&R people.

Howard said the $2.5 million held by the parks department for purchasing the line is still there. But he didnt see any likelihood of securing the appraisal information.

The local group wants the appraisal before making another offer to buy the railroad segment to prevent Idaho Northern and Pacific from tearing out the rails to sell as scrap.

An attempt to start pulling out the rails in Joseph last week was stopped by a threat of an injunction against the contractor, Klamert Railroad Salvage of Montana. That company is not listed on the state Corporation Divisions Web site as being licensed to do business in Oregon.

Members of the group said the asking price for the line is $7.2 million now (it had been up to $8 million), but that is way too high. An offer made by the state parks department in the spring was rejected, Howard said.

Bob Casey, who chaired a group of interested citizens and commissioners from both counties meeting in Elgin last week, said, I think the railroad is just holding us hostage. No one is going to pay $7.2 million for it. But if the price was something like $3.4 million, I think we could probably achieve that.

Casey said not much effort has been put into securing private donations to assist in the purchase.

Neil Cox, vice president and general manager of the Idaho Northern and Pacific, said from Emmett, Idaho, IN&P has no comment at this time on either the prospects of a sale or on whether he had received information on the appraisal.

Richard Bertell, chief executive officer of the parent company, Rio Grande Railroad in Fort Worth, Texas, was traveling and did not return phone messages left at his office by The Observer.

Wallowa County Assessor Gay Fregulia, addressing only the portion of the line in that county, said it was hard to estimate the market value from county records because of the rail lines abandonment, which occurred in 1994. She estimates there are 603 acres of railroad land involved in Wallowa County. The county listed the market value of that land as $2,152,282 for the tax year of 2000-01 (for bills sent out last November). That wont be adjusted very much for this years bill, Fregulia said. The market value listed by the county has gone up only a total of 2 percent over the previous two years, she said.

Wallowa County listed the assessed value at $1,634,160 for 2000-01 and that will increase by 3 percent for the next tax year, Fregulia said.

In Union County, Assessor Patty Gooderham said that because of the abandonment, the railroad property between Elgin and the county line hasnt been assessed in the last two or three years. It was previously taxed as a public utility, with the state Department of Revenue setting the assessed value, she said.

IN&P bought the line from milepost 21 in Elgin to the end, 62.58 miles, in Joseph in November 1993 from the Union Pacific Railroad for $25,598, according to the deed filed with the Wallowa County clerks office. Union Pacific retained the right to an easement along the line for future installation of communication or fiber optic facilities.

The contract further states that the buyer wont violate any land-use laws and regulations, which Wallowa County claims IN&P would be doing if it tried to yank the rails without first getting a permit from the county as required by the Wallowa County/Nez Perce Salmon Recovery Plan.