First the good news: District 7 is constructing massive improvements on the Santa Ana Freeway (I-5), investing more than $1.6 billion over the next five years on segments between the Orange County line and the San Gabriel River Freeway (I-605). The bad news is that these projects have required acquisition of some 200 homes, displacing thousands of people.
But, good news within the bad news – using lessons learned over decades of freeway building, Caltrans Right of Way Division has developed a kinder and gentler approach to relocation that is turning adversaries into partners.
One of the major players in the I-5 acquisitions is Doug Hoover, Senior Operations, Appraisal Management, Excess Land & Airspace Appraisals, who explained that the community in that area is very tight-knit and also very connected to their public officials. They participate in a Joint Powers Authority that holds monthly meetings with the cities, third party engineers and Caltrans representatives.
“Our job is to win their trust back and let them see that the Right of Way folks have hearts and are people just like them,” he said, adding that the public meetings were very helpful in building cooperation. “We’re having conversations now, not just throwing barbs at each other.”
In fact, the relationship is so improved that the city of Norwalk has expressed interest in participating in a District 7 Museum exhibit featuring the I-5 south Right-of-Way process. “City officials are very excited,” Hoover said.
It is important to him that the positive side of acquisitions gets some attention. For example, Caltrans has found a way to help people upside down on their mortgages or unemployed and unable to qualify for a new mortgage. “Working with the federal government, we’ve been able to stretch the rules and settle for their full mortgage.”
This is one of the new tricks that needed to be learned over time, he said, adding that these sorts of changes allow Caltrans to help people. “Unfortunately, sometimes condemnation has to happen but we want to do it with as little impact as possible.”
There is still condemnation activity on the I-5 Carmenita project although it is already under construction, primarily involving utility relocation, rail lines, water table and waste disposal. Hoover’s unit is putting in a major effort to handle this expanded workload. “This group is running seven days a week,” Hoover said, adding that they have permission to hire more. He expects this level of activity to continue for another few years.
This work is extremely rewarding for some but is not for everybody, he said. “You have to be a counselor, therapist and diplomat so you really need to be a ‘people person.’”
New challenges develop all the time. For example, Caltrans recently discovered that it would have to perform a “functional relocation” for a park on Clarksdale Avenue in Norwalk. The park houses a pool and a petting zoo. “We have to find a new site and build a new park, as well as find a place for the animals,” Hoover said, “Since relocation has to happen before the end of the year and building a park will take considerably longer, Cal Poly Pomona will house and care for the animals in the meantime, he said, adding that the college also will care for the more than 100 rose bushes that will be moved.
The plants are dear to the heart of the former landscape architecture major who then went into commercial art and on to graphic design before taking the civil service test and getting hired by District 12 in 1988. He was sent to District 7 to train for a year that turned into seven; he never went back. In 1995, he took a two-year assignment in District 11, returning in 1997 to Right of Way Region D-23 in Diamond Bar, until it was disbanded a few years ago. He’s been in the DO since.
In all that time, Hoover said he’s never been bored because of the diversity of the work and because “it’s kind of a great career.”
In his spare time, he keeps up his creativity through photography and ceramics and has both a photo studio and kiln at his house. He is also an avid traveler who has visited Mexico, Thailand, the Caribbean, Europe, Belize and many places in the U.S. In late September, he will be traveling down the Nile River in Egypt for two weeks.
Maybe those sights will somehow find their way into the museum exhibit, tentatively planned for the end of next year, since he intends to do some of the artwork himself.