By Dug Begley

Rosewood Drive, a stone’s throw from Interstate 10 in San Bernardino, has seen better days. Askew fences separate the homes, many showing signs of stress and peeling paint.

But the 15 houses on the street are still homes, and some homeowners are struggling to adjust to the fact they’re being booted so a new exit ramp can be built.

“She wants to stay here as long as she can,” said Samuel Meza, 16, translating for his mother, Rufina Meza. “This is her home.”

San Bernardino Eminent Domain

William Wilson Lewis III/The Press-Enterprise

Homes on Rosewood Drive in San Bernardino such as Rufina Meza’s will be demolished to make way for a new Interstate 10 exit ramp. Residents are concerned that they will receive less for their home than they paid for it.

To put in the new ramp and widen local streets near the intersection, 23 homes and two apartment buildings will be razed, said Garry Cohoe, director of freeway construction for San Bernardino Associated Governments. Pieces on other tracts of land will also be acquired by SANBAG and Caltrans for the project, but the homes would not be affected, Cohoe said.
The $76.3 million project to replace or widen entrance and exit ramps along I-10 is expected to start construction in 2012 and take about 18 to 24 months to complete. Property will be acquired in 2011 at the earliest, officials said.

Displacements are common for major freeway projects in California, where roads are crammed into developed areas and congestion forces officials to build more lanes. Investment is increasing for public transit projects, but in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, almost three in four drivers commute alone, and added bus routes aren’t going to dramatically change that anytime soon, road planners have said.

The larger concern for many residents who attended a public comment session on the project last week was receiving less for their home than they paid for it. With outstanding mortgages, many owners worry Caltrans will appraise their homes for less than they owe.

San Bernardino Eminent Domain

“So what happens with those loans,” said area resident Don Tindall, who attended the meeting to help neighbors who did not speak English. “Some of these people put everything they had into this house, and now the state’s going to buy it for less than they owe. So they get to move and still pay off the mortgage.”

Market Conditions

The state acquires the property either through price negotiations with the seller, or through the legal process of eminent domain, where a judge or arbitrator will settle the dispute and decide whether the state has a compelling interest to take the land.

Caltrans’ rules force the agency to pay fair market value — what the home is worth in today’s real estate climate — said Steve McClaury, a right-of-way manager for Caltrans.

“It goes both ways,” McClaury said of the state paying less than what people owe on their houses. “When we were acquiring property for the I-215 project, five, six years ago, we were paying much more than that property was worth and is worth now. We were paying unheard-of prices for that stuff.”

But that doesn’t mean the state isn’t sympathetic to the financial bind some could find themselves in with upside-down mortgages, McClaury said. A Federal Highway Administration program allows Caltrans to work with homeowners who could owe more than they are paid on homes.

“But there are conditions,” he said. “You have to be upside-down in your mortgage.”

Federal authorities allow for a price differential to account for increases in housing costs, which could be applied to absorb some of the losses, or help people find other homes, according to the highway administration’s Web site.

Distrust of the System

Despite public outreach, many residents said they remain wary of the plans, and the promises made by officials. Homeowners left in the shadow of the new exit ramp fear sound walls won’t be enough to keep the noise from affecting their homes.

San Bernardino Eminent Domain

William Wilson Lewis III/The Press-Enterprise

To put in the new Interstate 10 ramp and widen local streets near the intersection in San Bernardino, homes, businesses and apartment buildings will be razed. Rosewood Drive, center, will have most of the exit ramp leading to Tippecanoe Avenue.

“And I don’t want to be staring at a big concrete wall,” said Paul Jackson, 65, as he looked at a map that showed a sound wall right behind his Laurelwood Drive house.

Eight years ago a similar war was waged across Tippecanoe Avenue, when economic development officials cleared out a blighted neighborhood to make way for a complex of shops and restaurants.

Now residents east of Tippecanoe worry the city is building a blight case against them. Many said code enforcement officers have descended on the area.

“They are constantly going up and down the street, fining everyone,” Tindall said, adding that many residents and small business owners are afraid to speak out. “I don’t have any evidence of a conspiracy, but they are coming through every day it seems.”

City officials said the increase in code presence is likely either because of complaints, or technological changes that have made enforcement more productive.

“Where a neighborhood believes it is targeted, that is simply not the case,” said San Bernardino spokeswoman Heather Gray.

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