Bar Bulletin

Bar Bulletin

Profile / Kinnon Williams: Master of His Domain

Profile / Kinnon Williams: Master of His Domain

October 2019 Bar Bulletin

By Paris Kallas

Anyone who knows anything about eminent domain law knows Kinnon Williams. Williams’ eminent domain experience is deep and broad. He represents both property owners and government agencies. He serves as a mediator and arbitrator. He has written numerous articles about eminent domain.

He speaks at national and regional eminent domain CLEs and co-chairs an annual eminent domain CLE in Seattle. He led a successful effort to pass legislation ensuring relocation benefits to all impacted by condemnation, not just those affected by federally funded takings. To say he is devoted to the practice would be an understatement.

Williams grew up as one of seven children in a close-knit family. His parents instilled a strong work ethic and respect for informed and practical solutions. Williams’ deep interest in eminent domain law comes naturally. His father, attorney William (“Bill”) Williams was known as “Mr. Eminent Domain.” Bill Williams worked his way through law school at the University of Washington as a surveyor and opened his practice in Kenmore in 1953.

Kinnon attended the University of Washington, majoring in political science. He obtained his J.D. from the University of Oregon School of Law in 1986, where he was a member of the Moot Court team. It was a proud moment when Kinnon joined his father’s law practice and the firm became Williams & Williams.

Attorney Erin Overbey, who worked at Williams & Williams, attributes Kinnon’s strong work ethic and professionalism to his father. Overbey says Bill mentored all who passed through the firm, “dispensing both common sense and sound legal advice.” She recalls when Bill suffered a heart attack in the middle of a deposition. Aid arrived quickly and he was resuscitated. Ever the professional, Bill looked to opposing counsel and said, “I think I will need to continue this deposition.”

At Williams & Williams, Kinnon quickly adopted his father’s philosophy that the client comes first and that a lawyer’s job is to help people solve problems. This client-focused pragmatism continues to inform Williams’ approach today.

Now a partner at Inslee Best Doezie & Ryder, Williams has a practice focusing on eminent domain and municipal law. Attorney Steve VanDerhoef describes Williams as “a skilled technician who not only knows the law, but also the nuances of appraisal theory.” Because Williams represents both property owners and government agencies, he has a “deep perspective” on the scope of the condemnation power, as well as its impact on property owners. VanDerhoef notes that Williams is “always available” to collaborate with colleagues at all levels of experience.

Opposing counsel consistently describe Williams as focused, practical and professional. Appellate attorney Ken Masters says Williams “is a great litigator” who is knowledgeable and experienced, polite and even humble. But make no mistake, Williams “is a terror to work against,” Masters says, “not because of his attitude, but because of his skill.”

King County Superior Court Judge John Ruhl presided over one of Williams’ trials, in which neighbors were embroiled in a dispute involving restrictive covenants and building codes. Although the trial was several years ago, Judge Ruhl stills recalls that Williams and his co-counsel were “models of professionalism” who served their clients well.

Williams also serves as special and general counsel to local governments and agencies including cities, fire departments and utilities across Washington. Attorney Deana Dawson, executive director of Sound Cities Association, describes Williams as “a great friend to the Sound Cities Association and to cities throughout the region.” His work includes training local officials to help them better understand their duties. As Dawson notes, this is no easy task as many officials serve part-time and have other jobs.

Overbey describes Williams’ approach to his government clients as proactive, encouraging local governments, agencies and special-purpose districts to seek legal advice before an issue or event ripens into a legal issue. His work varies from routine labor disputes to successfully defending cases before the Washington Supreme Court.

Williams’ first argument before the Washington Supreme Court successfully preserved special-purpose districts’ rights to impose fees, as the Court distinguished fees from taxes. A subsequent Supreme Court case argued by Williams affirmed that general-purpose governments are responsible for maintaining fire hydrants. Although his first Supreme Court win was more than 20 years ago, Williams is still called upon by clients to help distinguish fees from taxes.

Williams has what he describes as “great cocktail conversation knowledge” about real property taxes, government fees, prescriptive rights and such, but his main legal love is eminent domain. Williams writes and speaks extensively about almost every aspect of eminent domain law. He delights in explaining to jurors the basis for the law and how damages should be calculated. He jumps at an opportunity to discuss subjects like the “unit rule,” severance damages, and lienholder rights. Williams enjoys discussing the constitutional and historical basis of property rights with literally anyone — anywhere, anytime (just ask his friends and family).

Williams is often called upon by his peers for insights on the most recent changes to the law. He is co-author of the 2010 Washington State Bar Association Real Property Deskbook chapter on eminent domain and its latest update. He has written several dozen articles for national, regional and local publications.

His topics range from best acquisition practice and relocation rules to dealing with lenders and lienholders in the eminent domain context, and most recently, cultural considerations. In an article entitled “Washington Eminent Domain Law in a Rapidly Changing Region,” appearing in the May 2019 KCBA Bar Bulletin, Williams argues eminent domain practitioners can no longer rely “on a practice-as-usual approach” in the face of “momentous cultural and economic diversification.” Writing that planners often see gentrification as a public benefit, frequently displacing lower-income and foreign-born populations, Williams asserts racial and social equity considerations must be a part of the eminent domain process. He asserts that “cultural literacy is key” in any contemporary eminent domain practice.

Among speaking at CLEs and trade association conferences, Williams recently presented on the challenges of mass relocation of immigrant businesses at the American Law Institute annual conference on eminent domain. Williams and attorney Bart Freedman have co-chaired an annual eminent domain CLE for more than 15 years, bringing together condemnation attorneys for agencies and property owners to discuss the latest developments in the law. The CLE, also attended by agency representatives, acquisition agents, and appraisers is known for its pragmatic focus on best practices and emerging topics.

Along with his love of the law, Williams is dedicated to building community through volunteer activities. He currently serves as a commissioner on the King County Charter Review Commission. As subcommittee co-chair with Ron Sims, former King County executive, Williams participated in the development of two amendment proposals, including one that would allow for the sale of surplus county land for low-income or affordable housing.

Williams has served as vice chair of the Evergreen Healthcare Foundation Board, the charity supporting King County Public Hospital District 2 serving Northeast King County. He was also a volunteer member of the Alumni Advisory Board of The Washington Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit providing internship opportunities in various federal agencies and NGOs, giving students the chance to experience national and international policy making.

Williams actively participates in the state and local bar associations. He is a board member of the Washington State Bar Foundation and recently finished his tenure on the KCBA Finance Committee. He previously served as KCBA treasurer, co-chair of the KCBA Judicial Conferencing Committee, co-chair of the KCBA Judicial Evaluation Screening Committee, and chair of the KCBA Judicial Fair Campaign Practices Committee.

Attorney Carl Forsberg has worked with Williams for more than a decade on judicial rating and evaluation committees. Forsberg relates that Williams approaches each task with “a calm, sincere, and caring approach.” His hard work and dedication are “an inspiration” to committee members and Williams is a “valuable voice of experience and guidance” for the committee, Forsberg adds. Masters echoes this, describing Williams as “a great team player” who brings not only a serious work ethic, but also a sense of humor to the task at hand. Attorney Jeffrey Cohen, who worked with Williams on the KCBA Judicial Conferencing Committee, says Williams was dedicated to ensuring that the process was positive and productive.

But it is not all law, writing, CLEs and bar committees for Williams. He believes a vibrant arts community is essential to any great city and he is a patron of local theater and other live performances. Williams has been a subscribing member of the Seattle Repertory Theater for more than 30 years, attending at least 12 plays a year. In his next life, Williams aspires to be a successful playwright.

In this life, he was cast as a voice talent — along with Martin Sheen — in a national public television documentary about the World War II internment of Aleut Americans. He has several other film credits — for legal work. Presently, Williams serves as volunteer legal counsel for NFFTY (National Film Festival for Talented Youth), the largest youth film festival in the United States. He proudly notes the festival included the Oscar-winning short film Period. End of Sentence., about women’s access to basic health care in India. He also serves as legal advisor to Magnetic North Productions, LLC, which recently completed a six-part documentary series for public television about legendary Alaskans.

In his spare time, Williams loves to travel. He considers Switzerland something of a second home. He has visited most of Western Europe, including trips to Spain and Iceland last year. This year he spent two weeks aboard a 22-foot C-Dory with his brother-in-law, navigating southeast Alaska waters, including Glacier Bay and Tracy Arm, with stops at remote villages such as Hoonah and Elfin Cove. Other memorable travels include Japan, South Africa and Mozambique.

Perhaps his favorite trips are with family, especially his daughters. While they don’t travel together as much anymore, Williams is grateful that his daughters live nearby. Ella lives in north Seattle and works at Metro as a transportation planner. Ariel is a master yoga instructor and nursing student.

To fully know Williams, one must understand his connection to dogs. Just look at his Instagram account! Williams and his family are self-described dog lovers and this profile would be incomplete without mention of his constant companion Olivia, a 13-year-old, red-and-white Siberian husky, who makes sure that hikes (or at least very long walks in the park) are part of every weekend. Ariel’s Yorkshire terriers, Dexter and Deborah, keep the house full of energy and assure visitors are properly greeted.

Anyone who knows anything about eminent domain law knows Kinnon Williams. And anyone who knows Williams, knows that he believes that both the law and life require giving it your all — and giving back to your community. 

Paris Kallas is a former King County Superior Court judge and now serves as a neutral at Judicial Dispute Resolution (JDR).

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