I-15 widening makes eminent domain imminent

The title of the project brings to mind images of glitz and a cheesy brand of fun only found in Las Vegas.

But for those immediately effected by Project Neon, it is more like the flipside of Vegas. You know, the one where homes are stripped from owners for next to nothing or, in some cases, homeowners suddenly find themselves living next door to an unseemly neighbor such as a freeway.

I would like to say there will be no hoopla, though there probably will be a ribbon cutting. That is how massive transportation projects are celebrated. It is fairly safe to predict residents of the Saratoga Meadows and Glen Heather Estates neighborhoods will not be attending, partly because a handful of them will no longer live there.

The improvements to Interstate 15 between Sahara Avenue and the Spaghetti Bowl are planned by the Nevada Department of Transportation. A significant part of the endeavor is to improve access to and from the freeway, which includes realigning and widening Martin Luther King Boulevard, revamping the Charleston Boulevard interchange and adding a ramp that will lead from the interstate directly onto Bonneville Avenue.

The department anticipates the amount of traffic on that portion of the freeway will nearly double to half a million vehicles a day in the next decade, warranting the improvements.

As with any major road reconfiguration that includes new flyovers, ramps and the taking of private property, this project will be done in stages. When those phases are started and completed depends almost solely on funding.

This is where residents' frustration is brewing.

Their anger and anxiety is understandable. More than a decade ago, many residents were told about Project Neon and that their houses would eventually be taken. Nothing happened. A little more than a year ago, 10 homeowners in Saratoga Meadows received letters from the transportation division saying they are part of Phase 3 and the eminent domain process is a decade away. It encouraged residents to carry on with their lives, make improvements to their homes or whatever they wished to do.

They did.

One woman, who asked that her name be withheld because her negotiations with the department are going well, said her neighbor spent thousands relandscaping her yard.

"She joked that it would be a Murphy's Law thing," the woman said. "People hung on for seven years without making changes and got tired of it."

Six months after the first letter, neighbors received another memo. This one said their homes would be taken by December 2011. December came and went without appraisals or, worse yet, further communication. This month, residents were told the department's goal is to have all the homes they need by early 2013.

The question that had to be asked was whether the transportation department decided to expedite the eminent domain process while home values were the lowest in two decades. Residents figure the department could save quite a bit of money by searching comps in the neighborhood and paying peanuts for the homes that were built in the 1970s.

"It appears that way, but that couldn't be further from the truth," said Paul Saucedo, the transportation department's chief of right-of-way, adding that they must follow federal guidelines. "There has to be an environmental document approved, and you have to have a design sufficient enough to see what rights of way you need."

He added that rather than taking parts of neighborhoods in one phase and other parts in the next, the department decided to hit residents once.

The unnamed woman said she was on line with the skeptics' argument, but said department officials have been empathetic and are trying to be fair. She said they are offering homeowners the difference between the value of their home and the cost of a comparable home.

Michelle Booth, a spokeswoman for the department, said the agency also decided to move forward because they anticipate lawsuits. If officials wait until they are ready to begin destruction and construction, they could be delayed by litigation and lose the funding.

"We expect this could go to litigation, so we are trying to get the properties as soon as possible," she said.

The department is accurate in its assumption. Neighbors have been frustrated by the pace of the department and living their lives in limbo. They have tried to hire eminent domain attorneys to represent them, but so far, no takers. They chalk that up to another Vegas-like phenomenon: Big-name lawyers do not want to take their case because a more lucrative offer, perhaps one from a government agency involved in the process, could come along and they would be stuck because of conflicts of interest.

The positive side for residents is that, for the first time in years, they are receiving information. For months, they believed the department was underestimating the impact the project was having on their lives.

"We do understand what an imposition it is. It's their home and we are telling them they have to move," Saucedo said, countering residents' claims. "You can imagine (the difficulty) we have finding some people a replacement dwelling. It's not easy."

Christina Gibson, president of the Saratoga Meadows Neighborhood Association, said information is beginning to flow and that is progress.

"We'd come to meetings, and they'd say there would be information, but all we got were lots of 'we don't knows.' No information. We had no sense that our comments were going anywhere."

Still, plenty of questions are left unanswered at neighborhood association meetings. Residents don't know what will be done to the homes that sell. Will they sit vacant? Will neighbors be left living next door to a boarded-up home attracting squatters? And if the homes are razed, will they be living next to a garbage-strewn homeless encampment? Or will the department cough up enough money to fence in the empty lots?

Booth said that once the department takes a property, it hires security to patrol the area and ensure that the property does not become blighted.

The division is hosting an open house from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 8 at the Las Vegas Springs Preserve, 333 S. Valley View Boulevard.

If you have a question, tip or tirade, call Adrienne Packer at 702-387-2904, or send an email to roadwarrior @reviewjournal.com. Include your phone number.