Eminent Domain Abuse: Lot to Replace Woodbridge Shops - County to Clear 2 Businesses, One Not Yet Open, for Parking

By Amy Orndorff
Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, July 8, 2007; PW01

The white lines that mark the parking spots around Dharmesh Desai's auto repair shop are freshly painted, awaiting customers who will never come.

For the past 11 years, Desai has worked to meet the county's requirements to run a small auto shop, only to be told before it opened that the county needs his land more than he does.

For the past decade, Prince William County has undergone continuous and rapid residential growth, which has far outpaced road construction. Prince William County has tried to fill the void in transportation by going into business itself building and renovating infrastructure. Using locally approved bond referendums, the county has undertaken large projects, such as the widening of Route 15, and smaller ones, such as expanding commuter parking lots.

The infrastructure campaign has not just been about moving dirt and putting down asphalt. Part of it includes demolishing shops such as Desai's.

Desai's building is across the street from the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission headquarters along Potomac Mills Road in Woodbridge. A commuter and employee parking lot and housing for the commission's buses, built in the early '90s, has not kept up with the growing need for space. The commission says it must expand.

Desai's small business, as well as a transmission shop next door, will be demolished to make way for a commuter parking lot.

"The engineers are saying the only place to locate this parking efficiently is across the street," Deputy County Attorney Angela Horan said. "There is no question that the public use needs to grow."

In between the commission's parking lot and Desai's business is a group home for boys, and to either side of the businesses are woods that are owned, but not in use, by American Fire Equipment. Both seem like alternatives to Desai and the owner of the transmission shop, but not to the commission.

"The whole parcel is too big for our purpose. It would truly take more engineering to make it suitable," Horan said of the woods.

Charles Dean, who owns the transmission shop next door, knows what it is like to have the government buy his land. After four condemnations by state and local governments, the 25 acres Dean once owned has been whittled down to about half an acre.

In all of the previous condemnations, Dean has settled without protest. This is the only time, he says, he has not thought he was getting a fair deal. The county offered Desai $525,000 for his 0.8 acres and Dean $400,000 for his property, which they both think is surprisingly low.

"The appraisal, it was a slap in the face," Dean said. "It was really a shock."

The two owners sought independent estimates, and now Dean says his land is worth $1.2 million and Desai says his is worth at least $1.8 million. Horan said she has not seen either appraisal.

Dean and Desai attribute the difference between the government's offers and the independent assessments to a few factors, one of them zoning. They say the private-sector assessments took into account the limited amount of land zoned for auto repair shops.

Dean's tenant, Allen Freeman, 61, opened his shop nearly 30 years ago and has developed a group of faithful clients who he fears won't follow him if the shop moves more than five miles away.

"When you get up my age and you have to start all over from scratch, it is rough," Freeman said.

Desai says it is not about the money, but about fulfilling his boyhood dream of running a garage.

The first thing Desai did after immigrating to the United States from India was to become an auto shop apprentice. He took a job with the Postal Service working on its trucks and became a letter carrier to get better hours. When Desai purchased the land for his shop in 1996, he considered it a way to fund his future.

"I always think about what I am going to do in the future," Desai said. "A storm can come, a hurricane can come -- but the land will still be there."

The following year, Desai applied for a dealership and repair shop permit from the county but didn't have enough money to make the necessary improvements to the shop. Every day for the next 11 years, Desai would stop there after work. He watered his plants, until they were stolen. He started visiting his vacant property in the middle of the night to make sure people hadn't broken in. He would drive 20 miles out of his way to check on the shop.

"That place is like my other house," Desai said. "Something I love more than anything."

The Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission made its intentions to buy his property clear a year and a half ago, so Desai has stopped working on the shop and is looking at other places to open up a similar business. The commission provided him and Freeman with a relocation specialist, who hasn't been able to find comparable locations.

"I am not after the money; that is the bottom line," Desai said. "I want another place. I need another place like that."

For now, both men are waiting to see when the commission will activate its "quick-take" powers and evict the men, probably by mid-July.

Their chances of keeping their businesses?

"Zero," Freeman said. "It's just a matter of time. We are just waiting for the hammer to fall."


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