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5 Merchants Fight Tollway Agency : Transportation: Some bitterly complain that Corridor officials haven’t offered a fair price to uproot them and they face financial ruin.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nearly five years ago, David Velton spent $50,000 to improve a patch of dirt so he could open a used-car dealership on a part of Camino Capistrano that fronts Interstate 5.

Now, Velton suddenly finds himself in the path of progress, with a deadline to move out, financial worries and a grudge over how he feels government is treating him.

He’s not going without a fight. And he’s not alone.

The San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor is displacing Velton’s small lot, and he and four other merchants on that section of Camino Capistrano must relocate by mid-October.

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The corridor agency wants them gone to make way for construction of the $800-million, 15-mile-long toll road that is touted as a cure for hundreds of thousands of motorists in South County. The agency needs the properties for the toll road’s interchange with Interstate 5, and for the widening of the freeway between Mission Viejo and San Juan Capistrano.

Some business owners bitterly complain that the agency hasn’t offered a fair price to uproot them and that having to relocate bodes financial ruin. They have hired attorneys or consultants.

“They’re just steamrolling us,” said Velton, who received a 90-day notice last month. “What they are doing here is taking my business away that I’ve worked five years to build up. Their method of helping is absolutely none.”

Velton said he refinanced his house to start his business. Because real estate values have plummeted, he doesn’t have the cash now to start over, he said.

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A few doors down, Horacio Cuellar feels no better.

Cuellar estimates he has $110,000 invested in displays for his business, Horacio’s Marble & Granite. He won’t be able to save any of the displays when the building is razed for the toll road, he said, and he won’t be fully compensated for his loss.

“They don’t want to pay me what I have in this showroom,” Cuellar said. “Let me explain it to you this way: If you cut off my hand and then return it later, I want the same size hand, not one with shorter or longer fingers.”

Cuellar said $42,000 has been offered to compensate for the displays and other equipment.

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“What the hell do they know about marble?” Cuellar asked. “I’ve been in it for 14 years.”

Lisa Telles, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Transportation Corridor Agencies, denies that business owners are being treated unfairly. She said they are tenants--not landowners--who will receive compensation for the cost to pack, move and reinstall business equipment.

Any compensation for buildings or improvements are left for landowners and merchants to work out, Telles said.

Merchants who are unhappy with relocation offers should work with right-of-way agents, she said.

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“My understanding is that negotiations are still taking place,” Telles said. “Depending on where they are in the process, there are points where they can negotiate.”

But Cuellar said he has yet to receive a breakdown of the agency’s appraisal for the marble displays. He said he has asked several times.

Telles said eminent domain proceedings can be frightening because they give government the authority to take property, but he said the process follows long-held Caltrans guidelines and state law.

Compensation for intangibles, such as how many prospective customers drive by a business each day, can also part of the negotiations, Telles said.

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Ken Friess, a former San Juan Capistrano mayor who sat on the Transportation Corridor Agencies board until 1992, said transportation officials were friendly at first with Cuellar but, with deadlines approaching, they now seem less willing to listen to concerns. Friess, a contractor who has done business with Cuellar, has tried to help him through the ordeal.

“It’s almost like they say, ‘You take this, and if you have a problem, sue us,’ ” Friess said.

Friess said the bureaucracy needs to remember that people’s lives are affected by its decisions.

“I don’t think any of it is intentional, to set out to hurt anyone,” he said of the concerns being razed. “It’s a tough hit these people take. They take a big hit emotionally.”

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Cuellar has hired an attorney who specializes in eminent domain law, and Velton has a consultant representing him.

Stan Zalesny, with Redevelopment Consultants of America, said government agencies usually take the “low-cost approach” when negotiating.

“I’m not going to knock the agencies,” Zalesny said. “They have a job to do. We just think they could move a little faster, but they have levels in which they have to make approvals. You’re dealing with a bureaucracy.”

Zalesny said eminent domain for small businesses can be harsh.

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“Other than death, taxes and divorce, this is probably one of the most traumatic things that happens to people,” he said.

Velton, who knew of plans for the toll road when he opened his car lot, said he figured it would take a decade for construction to begin.

“I’ve been here almost five years,” he said. “Business is getting better every year. People finally know I’m here.”

But he will have to start over somewhere else--if he can afford to.

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“I just happen to be in their way,” he said.


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