State abandons project after razing 40 homes

Published Dec. 14, 2015

Associated Press

ALTAMONTE SPRINGS — 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 has 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 was deemed "necessary for public use" and was purchased, emptied of residents and demolished — 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 compensated former residents, paying 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.

A DOT 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.

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

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 decisionmakers, you have greater chance of abuse of property rights."