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U.S. underpaid for field where 9/11 flight crashed: prior owner

By Elizabeth Daley

PITTSBURGH (Reuters) - The U.S. government underpaid the owner of the field where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed on September 11, 2001, his lawyers argued in federal court on Friday.

In 2009 the government paid Michael Svonavec $611,000 for the 276-acre (112-hectare) plot where 40 passengers and crew died after fighting hijackers and preventing them from carrying out what U.S. authorities said was a plan to crash the aircraft into the U.S. Capitol.

That payment dramatically undervalued the land, his appraiser, Randall Bell, told a three-member commission in federal court in Pittsburgh.

Bell, who also appraised the World Trade Center crash site, said Svonavec's land, 80 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, was worth $23.3 million. He said he based that estimate on the presumption that a memorial could generate admissions and concession revenue from roughly 230,000 visitors per year.

The National Parks Service is using the land as part of a memorial to the victims of that flight, one of four jets hijacked on 9/11, but does expect the site to turn a profit, attorneys for the U.S. government said.

Witnesses for the federal government challenged Bell's estimate as far too high.

"Is it realistic that visitors will come every year and pay money to see nothing?" asked David Lennhoff, a real estate consultant hired by the government to critique Bell's assessment.

The commissioners hearing the case are due to make their decision on whether to pay more to Svonavec in about a month.

(Editing by Scott Malone and David Gregorio)