The Oregonian via Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -- When Doug Sellers went to the Multnomah County building last week, the attorney on the other side handed him a check for $1.15 million, made out to the Estate of Dorothy Pauline English.

"Congratulations, you won," the county man said with a smile. "Now you can go celebrate."

Well, it won't be some wild party. English, who was 95 when she died in 2008, wanted her grandson, Sellers, to take the extended family to play Bingo if she won. Honest. It makes him shake his head, too, but he'll do it.

Otherwise, they plan to have a guy come in with a tractor and a mower, to cut the thigh-high weeds on Dorothy's famous 20 acres on Northwest McNamee Road. Then they'll have a well drilled.

All this time, more than 50 years, they haven't had city water up there. Dorothy's husband, Nykee, put in a system to route water from the rain gutters to four underground storage tanks, and that's what they drank from and flushed with.

Nykee was quite a guy, by the way. Short and wiry, worked for the railroad, could fix anything. He built their house, situating it so you could look out the picture window or get up on the deck and see Hood, Adams, St. Helens, the Willamette and the Columbia.

The property sits like a saddle draped over the highest point of McNamee Road, which is off Skyline Drive above Highway 30. The view was the only thing fancy about the place. Nykee and Dorothy took their coffee together every morning, sitting in that window, talking and laughing about the day.

Dorothy, of course, became the one everyone thinks they know. That's her name on the Oregon Supreme Court decision, English v. Multnomah County, that finally settled the state's best known land-use case.

They called her a lot of things during that fight, people on both sides of the property rights question. A hero, the poster girl of Measure 37. Or a greedy shrew, a puppet manipulated by powerful development forces that want to pave over Oregon's farms and slap up houses in the forests.

But to Sellers she was just Grandma, and she was a kick in the pants. One time he was kayaking in the Willamette and called her from the channel far below the house. "Hey Grandma, look out the window," he told her, intending to wave.

"I'll give you the finger," she said.

"That's exactly what I'd expect from you," he responded, and it still makes him laugh today.

You may remember the bare facts of the case. Dorothy and Nykee bought the property in 1953, long before Oregon adopted statewide planning rules. When she reached her late 80s and with Nykee dead, Dorothy figured she would make ends meet by dividing the property into eight homesites.

But Multnomah County had changed the zoning in the intervening years, and wouldn't let her.

It happened to a lot of rural property owners. The state's counties, intending to stop urban sprawl and preserve farm and forestland, zoned people's development rights out from under them. In many cases, the counties applied restrictions where zoning never existed.

Dorothy wouldn't have it. "I'll fight them forever," she told a magazine interviewer, "as long as I have breath."

Aided by the property rights group Oregonians in Action, Dorothy became the face of Measure 37, which voters passed in 2004. It gave property owners the right to develop their land in the way allowed when they bought it. Local governments such as Multnomah County had the option of paying compensation for diminished property value, or waiving the development rules. Dorothy filed the state's first claim under Measure 37, and the county dug in.

Suffice to say it was quite the battle, waged in Multnomah County Circuit Court, spilling over to the Oregon Court of Appeals and finally heading to the Supreme Court.

In the meantime, voters scaled back development rights by passing Measure 49 in 2007. But Dorothy's attorney, Joe Willis of Portland's Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, won a compensation judgment for $1.15 million.

In June, more than two years after Dorothy died, the Supreme Court said the judgment was valid and ordered the county to pay up. Sellers went down to the county building last Thursday to pick up the check. Schwabe Williamson accepted a check for another $1.15 million, to cover attorney's fees and other legal costs.

Sellers, who manages his grandmother's affairs, says the estate isn't rolling in dough.

"It is a lot of money. It is. I'm not stupid," he says. But about half will go to taxes. The well will cost plenty, he says, and the house needs new siding and other repairs. He and his older brothers, Donald and David, will get some of the money.

The thing is, the legal victory didn't change the basic facts: the family still can't develop the property.

"It's a bittersweet victory, for sure," Sellers said.

His mother, Christie Verhoef, is living in the house on McNamee Road now. Sellers, who owns a pair of antique stores in Hillsboro and has an estate sale business, expects he and his wife eventually will move into care for his mother.

They'll try to figure out what to do on the place. Grow grapes, maybe. It needs a lot of work, but it was paradise for Sellers and his brothers growing up. A place to play and to laugh with their grandparents.

He'll remember them, and especially Dorothy, as smart, incredibly well-read, honest, opinionated and wise-cracking. Always told you exactly what she thought.

"Number one," she'd say, and tick off a litany of points without ever getting to number two. Sometimes she'd call 10 times a day.

"Gosh, I miss her like crazy," Sellers says.

Nykee's ashes were already spread around a treasured dogwood tree in the yard, so when Dorothy died they mixed her ashes into the soil as well. David Sellers came out of the house with two cups of coffee and poured them onto the spot, so Dorothy and Nykee could have their coffee together again.

"It was a nice moment," Doug Sellers says.

Much more so than receiving the check and the congratulations from the county attorney, the one who said, "Now you can go celebrate."

Sellers didn't begrudge the county man. Probably just doing his job.

Sellers just looked at him. "At least it's over," he said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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