CLEARWATER — In an industrial area marked by small manufacturing plants and artisans' shops operating side-by-side in corrugated iron warehouses, business people set themselves up along U.S. 19 hoping to draw the eyes of passing motorists.
An auto repair shop. Another that sells hub caps.
But when the state Department of Transportation began building overpasses at nearby busy intersections to improve traffic flow, these entrepreneurs saw prospective customers who once passed their front doors disappear, rising onto the elevated highway.
Now some of those businesses stand to be obliterated.
A few months after Gov. Rick Scott announced he was freeing up $337 million for the Gateway Express, a project that will elevate whole stretches of road, not only at intersections, the DOT has begun filing lawsuits to take the businesses' land away from them.
The land is needed because DOT essentially is erecting an elevated toll-road linking I-275 to U.S. 19. There also is a planned link from I-275 to the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.
Some of the affected businesses have agreed to buy-out prices without a court battle, such as Mabry Autoland, 11922 U.S. 19, and Hub Cap City, 11810 US 19, located where the toll road to U.S. 19 will end, said Jim Helinger Jr., the attorney representing them.
But that's not the case with S&B Custom Trailers and Hitches at 12004 U.S. 19, just up the road, also known as Dixie Trailers. DOT is taking the business, as well as a half dozen other property owners, to court in eminent domain actions to take the land.
“This is going to be a good project for the motoring public,” Helinger said. “But these people are being put out of business.”
At its location for roughly 10 years, Dixie Trailers employs a half dozen people. The business repairs and constructs trailers and hitches for a variety of enterprises — floats that appear in the Gasparilla parade, gooseneck trailers that furniture companies use to move their product, and simple boat trailers, among others.
When the overpass outside Dixie Trailers' driveway went up a half dozen years ago, the company lost an important part of its business, car haulers, said Jim Symanski, company vice president. Before that, tractor-trailers could pull up alongside U.S. 19 for servicing. Now, there's nowhere for them to go, he said.
Though the DOT did not encroach on his land for the overpass construction, using state right-of-way instead, Symanski says his property value went down.
With construction of the Gateway Express on the horizon, DOT wants to compensate Dixie Trailers based on the value of the land after the overpass was built, not before, Helinger and Symanski said.
At stake are roughly two acres of developable land running along the Cross Bayou Canal, and a 5,666-square-foot building with special features such as hurricane protections and extra-thick concrete floors for the heavy-duty work at hand.
An appraisal done on behalf of Dixie Trailers says Symanski and the other company owners should receive $1.7 million for the property. That number is based on a cost approach appraisal — or what it would cost to replicate the business elsewhere under similar conditions.
But DOT has offered $635,100 for the land and building, Helinger said. Symanski said that doesn't even cover the building.
One reason the department's number is low is because it doesn't want the whole parcel, only a part that would cut through more than half of that 5,666-square-foot repair shop. But that would leave a piece of land that is virtually worthless, Helinger said.
DOT differs with Helinger over what can be done with the remaining land, and it is opting not to use the cost approach appraisal, according to an email to the attorney by Steve Horn, then DOT's district lawsuit coordinator.
“Since we ... have a wide difference of opinion of value, it will probably serve the best interest of all parties to proceed with the condemnation process,” Horn wrote. The DOT filed a lawsuit for the property on April 8.
Meanwhile, Symanski and the co-owners have to wait to see how much money they'll get before they move their business. They would like a location similar to what they had before the overpass went up, with a presence for all to see.
“The public will go away if they have to go 16 different side streets to get there,” Symanski said.
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