Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Residents notified of plans to raze homes for 405 project

SHERMAN OAKS - Homeowners along the San Diego Freeway are bracing for the possibility that their homes could be bulldozed as Caltrans has begun quietly alerting residents of plans to move forward with a $950 million widening project.

Residents near the Valley Vista Boulevard exit said they received postcards last week from the state agency, alerting them that a plan has been finalized for a 10-mile northbound car-pool lane linking the Santa Monica and Ventura freeways.

The postcards, however, offered little detail on which homes through the Sepulveda Pass would be directly affected.

Caltrans officials on Monday would only say that the agency has chosen a less-severe option that was under consideration, although they said some changes also have been made to that plan.

Residents in the area have been anxiously awaiting news as the agency weighed two options - one that would have razed nearly three dozen homes and businesses through Brentwood Glen and one that would affect just about a half-dozen.

"There is relief in the sense that we know where we're going," said John Donaty, owner of an industrial and commercial real estate firm whose home in the 4400 block of Sherman Oaks Circle was slated to be taken under both plans proposed by Caltrans months ago.

"We've been waiting so long to know what Caltrans' decision is. It's nice to know that they can now tell us."

But even though Caltrans has sent out the notifications,

officials said Monday that they are still compiling the final environmental impact report and could provide few details to the Daily News.

Deborah Harris, Caltrans spokeswoman, said she did not know when the final report would be sent to residents and other stakeholders, who would receive it on compact discs.

Caltrans spokeswoman Judy Gish said that while the public can speak out about the final report, no changes will be made to the plan based on the comments.

"This is the final determination," Gish said.

The notification comes after months in which homeowners have awaited the state Department of Transportation's plan for the heavily used roadway.

One of the plans called for building a fifth southbound lane on the freeway in addition to the northbound car-pool lane.

That would have involved razing 37 homes and apartment buildings, a landmark Lutheran church and two commercial properties in Brentwood Glen along with taking land from seven lots in Sherman Oaks.

Outraged homeowners and Getty Center officials loudly protested the extensive expansion last year during public hearings.

Using $730 million from the 2006 voter-approved Proposition 1B, the car-pool-lane project also involves $90 million in state money and $130 million more from the feds.

However, the federal money is contingent on construction beginning by 2009. Gish said the project is expected to open for bid this summer and should be awarded by year's end.

"We feel some relief after receiving the postcard, because we were in that gray area of not knowing," said Roy Rimbach, who has lived for 30 years in an area home with his wife, Marsha.

"So we should have some answers."

Homeowners are not the only ones waiting for answers.

Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss has not seen the report or the postcards sent to residents, said Lisa Hansen, Weiss' deputy chief of staff.

While improvements are needed for the San Diego Freeway, Weiss is concerned about taking homes and the impact of future options for Sepulveda Boulevard, Hansen said.

"This proposal may be better than the original and may address some concerns," said Hansen.

"But we need to see the details before making judgments."

Construction of the car-pool lane could take up to five years. Adding the lane would save motorists one minute for every mile driven, Caltrans officials have said.

The transit agency typically offers fair-market value for properties taken through eminent domain. However, with the housing market declining, today's pricing could be lower than homeowners expected last year.

A for-sale sign stands in the yard of one homeowner in the 4400 block of Sherman Oaks Circle who could lose a chunk of property in the deal.

After Marcella Tyler first learned of plans to knock down homes and expand the freeway during one of two public information meetings hosted by Caltrans last March, the Sherman Oaks woman started a fight against any expansion.

Posting a sign in her yard stating "Save our neighborhood," Tyler began alerting other residents and even launched a Web site to spread the word.

Tyler, who has lived in Sherman Oaks for 30 years, said she was disgusted Monday to hear that Caltrans plans to pursue the freeway widening.

"It seems like they didn't hear us at all," Tyler said. "Big powerful Brentwood - they prevailed. But little Sherman Oaks - they did not."

Living a block from homes that could be razed, Wayne Williams echoed Tyler's opposition.

Williams has long fought widening the freeway and says that in the long run it will do little to improve traffic congestion.

"What astounds me about this entire proposal is figuring out a way to squeak in a car-pool lane, which doesn't really work to fix traffic," Williams said, "instead of building another southbound (lane), which would work."


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