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State Demolished 40 Homes For Now-Abandoned Project

The result of all the moving and expense might be to erase one neighborhood and replace it with another.

Mon December 14, 2015 - Southeast Edition
BETHANY RODGERS - Orlando Sentinel

Recent shifts in how road projects are sequenced have escalated the risk that the government will unnecessarily take homes and other private properties.
Recent shifts in how road projects are sequenced have escalated the risk that the government will unnecessarily take homes and other private properties.

ALTAMONTE SPRINGS, Fla. (AP) - The first home Brunilda Galarza ever owned, she surrendered to the government to be razed and submerged beneath a 10-acre drainage pond.

Like dozens of other residents in the neighborhood just outside Altamonte Springs, she and her husband packed up and cleared out of their community, then watched as cranes moved in behind them to tear down their homes.

The driveway where her son practiced his basketball layups, the patio where they hung streamers for his bug-themed 3rd birthday party _ it all disappeared to make way for a retention pond that the Florida Department of Transportation said was needed for a critical highway expansion.

But it’s been six years since the Galarzas moved out, and the land is still as dry as they left it.

Project plans changed. The 41-lot neighborhood _ which FDOT deemed ”necessary for public use’ and was purchased, emptied of residents and demolished for $12.9 million _ will serve no lasting public purpose.

The land, just east of Interstate 4 and south of State Road 436, will probably go up for sale in a few years and end up in the hands of a private developer. The result of all the moving and expense might be to erase one neighborhood and replace it with another.

The state agency did compensate former residents, paying out more than $11.4 million to buy their homes and about $1.1 million to relocate them. Still, moving on hasn’t been easy for some people, displaced from homes where they had lived for decades, planted gardens and raised children.

”The intention of 40 families being uprooted was because they said there was going to be a retention pond, and this was the best location. And now six or seven years later, where’s the retention pond?’ Galarza, 54, asked from her former driveway apron, the only remaining trace of 127 Dolores Drive.

An FDOT spokesman said the agency did need the land based on its initial plan for storing runoff from the I-4 expansion. However, several years later, the agency changed course after deciding there was a better, cheaper solution for dealing with stormwater, spokesman Steve Olson said.

The agency only recently became convinced that the alternative stormwater plan was viable, he added.

”In hindsight, if we knew then what we know now, and had the comfort level that the latest version offers, we could have avoided buying the property, and been even further ahead,’ Olson wrote in an email.

Situations such as the one near Altamonte Springs are one side effect of a change in how FDOT approaches many road projects, says a Jacksonville-based attorney experienced in eminent domain cases.

Recent shifts in how road projects are sequenced have escalated the risk that the government will unnecessarily take homes and other private properties, attorney Andrew Brigham said. Once rigidly ordered in phases, transportation projects have become more fluid, and designs are often still in flux as construction gets under way.

As a result, transportation officials are taking land before they know how they’ll use it or whether they’ll need it at all, Brigham said.

”In some cases, the government is . jumping before they really look,’ he said. ”With greater discretion put in the hands of government decision makers, you have greater chance of abuse of property rights.’

FDOT slated the neighborhood for a future stormwater pond as part of its I-4 expansion project, which will intensify the flow of runoff from the highway.

The retention pond disappeared from the project plans after the state agency changed gears to partner with the city of Altamonte Springs and others on an innovative system for treating runoff. Instead of collecting all the dirty water into a pond, they’d treat and reuse it to irrigate lawns. The plan, called A-FIRST, has been hailed as a forward-thinking runoff solution that will conserve water, prevent pollution and save money.

But for Ray Collins, a former Genevieve Drive resident, it’s tough to be thrilled about the plan after seeing homes ripped apart to make way for a stormwater pond that will never be.

”They should have thought this whole thing out better than they did,’ Collins, who now lives in Longwood, said.

In the past, the design work for new roads, bridges or stormwater ponds was almost completed before FDOT officials gathered land and began construction, Brigham said. But more recently, transportation officials have been favoring a design-build process, which allows planning and land acquisition to happen at the same time, he said.

”The idea is to take the property and then do the design afterwards,’ he said.

This system comes with a number of benefits _ it can save money by making it easier to adjust a project in progress, for instance _ but also changes the playing field for eminent domain cases, the attorney argued.

Brigham said while he wasn’t involved with the demolition of Galarza’s neighborhood, he is fighting on behalf of a nearby shopping center that likely will be affected by the I-4 expansion.

Olson acknowledged that FDOT has relied more heavily on the fluid design-build approach in recent years, which he said can save money.

Another recent example of this approach involved a Jacksonville church that FDOT wanted to buy for a drainage pond project.

When Glorious Bethlehem Temple and the state agency couldn’t agree on fair compensation, FDOT simply changed its plans for the pond and left the church stranded inside a neighborhood that had already been demolished, according to the Florida Times-Union.

Brigham, who is representing the church in its suit against FDOT, said the agency’s ability to overhaul its project designs late in the process put his clients at a bargaining disadvantage.

An FDOT spokesman declined to comment on the case, since it is in litigation.

Another bitter pill for former residents of Galarza’s community is that FDOT officials snubbed A-FIRST, the water reuse plan hatched by Altamonte Springs officials, years before demolishing the neighborhood.

It was only after the homes were leveled that the transportation agency switched its plan for dealing with stormwater.

Florida Sen. David Simmons of Altamonte Springs said he doesn’t fault FDOT for its initial, cautious approach.

”I think that any time that there’s a new and innovative idea that is presented, there’s often resistance to change,’ Simmons said. ”I don’t criticize FDOT at all for having started doing things the way they’ve always done them. I applaud FDOT for having the initiative to do something differently.’

It was Simmons who arranged the 2013 sit-down meeting between the state transportation secretary and Altamonte Springs city manager that finally breathed life into A-FIRST.

City Manager Frank Martz said he first pitched the idea to FDOT officials in 2005 or 2006, but they weren’t initially comfortable stepping out on a proposal unfamiliar to them.

Olson, the FDOT spokesman, said transportation officials did a cost comparison of continuing with the stormwater pond or transitioning to A-FIRST and found the second option was cheaper.

Not all of the displaced inhabitants of Genevieve Drive and Dolores Drive are unhappy with how things turned out. A number of them say FDOT treated them well and offered them a fair price for their homes.

”I left with a smile on my face,’ said homeowner Miles Charlesworth, 41, who relocated to Dickinson, Texas.

Meanwhile, the former site of his subdivision stands screened by green fencing. For the next five years or so, during the Interstate 4 project, the roughly 12 acres will work as a storage yard for trucks and other construction equipment.

Then, the former subdivision will go up for sale, possibly to a developer.

Land broker William Sullivan, division president for Potomac Land Co. in Winter Park, said the property would probably be worth about $300,000 per acre on the open market and suitable for apartments because of its proximity to shopping, transportation and entertainment.

At that rate, FDOT would recoup about $3.5 million from the property, or less than a third of what the agency paid for it.

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