San Diego Business Journal

As Rancho del Sol Nursery tries to uproot itself from its current location in the path of state Route 56, it faces two conflicting orders from the city , one to sit and wait, and the other to hurry up and leave.

The nursery, at Rancho Santa Fe Farms Road and Black Mountain Road, was acquired under eminent domain earlier this year, helping clear the way for the last stretch of Route 56.

In August, the process was completed and the city issued the nursery a 90-day notice to vacate. The deadline was Nov. 7, said Scott Cohen, general manager of Rancho del Sol.

However, the 40-acre nursery was not able to honor the demand , and he blames the city.

"It's very frustrating dealing with them, because I have one of their departments saying, 'We need to get our appraisers out there to give you options, so you know what to do,'" Cohen said. "And the next guy's saying, 'How come you're not off the property? You were supposed to be off yesterday.' The left hand has no idea what the right hand's doing."

In fact, Cohen was ready to start the moving process a year ago, to an adjacent property owned by the company. However, he was told at the time his concerns were premature.

But a few months ago, when he had questions about how to handle his water meters and permits, he said city officials asked him why he waited until the last minute.

Nor is water the only headache, Cohen added.

"They give you 90 days. We have big greenhouses that have to come down, and this is the middle of winter, when we need the greenhouses the most to shelter the plants from the weather. And they want us to rip it down and move everything," he said.

Robert Barczewski, president of the nursery agreed, saying the city didn't realize what it takes to move a nursery. He doesn't object to the freeway itself, but to the way eminent domain was being handled, he said.

"All the expenses , nursery infrastructure, irrigated growing grounds and timers, hothouses greenhouses, shadehouses, you name it, our entire sales area , everything has been wiped out," Barczewski said.

Paying Upfront

In the meantime, he worries about how his business will manage during the transition , and also about his 50 employees.

"To this day, we have not received one dollar from the city or state. (I'm) using my own funds to move the nursery," Barczewski said.

It will cost in the neighborhood of $400,000 to $500,000 to move the nursery, he said.

Despite the costs involved, however, Rancho del Sol will most likely not shut down. The nursery continues to do well, because the housing boom in the area means continued business from developers, Barczewski said.

Since the nursery opened in 1993, business has grown every year. In 2000, the company did about $2 million worth of business, he said.

"It would be a foolish decision to close the doors, based on the growth in the area," Barczewski said.

He continues to negotiate with the city. That has been a "quagmire," he said.

Louis Goebel, an attorney for Rancho del Sol, said the nursery's problems began in 1998. Although Route 56 has been on the books for decades, the proposed alignment had always been about a half-mile to the south.

In 1998, the alignment was shifted northward, forming what looks like a "camel hump" on the map. That camel hump runs right through the nursery, he said.

The city then claimed an eight-acre swath of Barczewski's land under eminent domain. Of those eight acres, six ran through the nursery, while the remainder cut into an additional 120 acres owned by the Barczewskis, Goebel said.

Inadequate Payment

The city then paid $3.1 million for those eight acres , or, more accurately, it put the money into an account for the Barczewskis. If the family touches the money, it automatically waives the right to protest any part of the project, he said.

The payment is inadequate for those eight acres, Goebel said. Nor is there any money provided for the burden of moving the nursery and lost good will, he added.

Under eminent domain, the government has the power to take private land, provided that the land is put to a public use and the landowner receives "just compensation" for the land. Goebel believes the money for the Barczewskis is grossly inadequate.

Goebel noted that Rancho del Sol is one of only a few businesses to be affected by Route 56. A trucking business owned by Jim Zurcher will also have to be moved, he said.

In Zurcher's case, he also has had problems with the city. His business, originally in Carmel Valley, had been moved when an earlier leg of Route 56 was constructed, Goebel said.

The area Zurcher moved to was supposed to be out of the path of the freeway, but that changed along with the alignment, Goebel said.

Zurcher himself could not be reached as of press time.

Final Move Pending

Lane MacKenzie, a real estate supervisor for the city's Real Estate Assets Office, said because this is an ongoing eminent domain action, he was not able to get into specifics about the negotiations. However, he said overall, the city has been working with the owners of Rancho del Sol.

"They have moved about two-thirds of their project across the street to the property that they now own. And we have assisted them in getting a temporary water permit that they needed," MacKenzie said.

MacKenzie's office met with the owners of Rancho del Sol earlier this month. Based on that meeting, he believes the nursery will be completely moved into the adjacent property in a few months.

That will allow the project to proceed, since the nursery's current site lies right within the right-of-way of the highway, he said.

Fifth District City Councilman Brian Maienschein said very few businesses will be displaced as a result of Route 56. The area is owned mostly by developers, he said.

As for the businesses that do get displaced, Maienschein couldn't comment on their specific needs, since he doesn't participate in the negotiations. However, in general, he said the city has been working with them.

"Certainly, all the businesses in the area knew about the project, because it's been planned for over 30 years. So this definitely is not a surprise to anybody, and I don't believe anybody has claimed it is," Maienschein said. "Most of these issues are being resolved amicably. Hopefully, we'll be able to reach a satisfactory conclusion via negotiations."

Noting the project had been delayed more than 30 years, Maienschein said he wanted it done during his term. Route 56 is "the most significant and important transportation improvement in the city right now," he said.

During his campaign in 2000, voters consistently told Maienschein they wanted the freeway finished.

This came not only from his own constituents, but the entire electorate, Maienschein said.

"Everybody wants this done," he said.