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A San Juan Capo Gas Station No More

Caltrans needed a 3 percent sliver of the former 76 station, but the property is forever changed, the owner says. It's now caught up in litigation.

Ed Franks had big plans for the 76 gas station on Ortega Highway, believing it would be the only one on his side of the street after CalTrans got through .

Instead, all he has is a "funky" dirt lot. And a lawsuit filed against him by the state.

When the dust settles, the best use for his property may end up being a “mini-Denny’s,” he said.

Caltrans and city officials declined to be interviewed for this story, citing pending litigation.

Franks is an heir to , the unofficial “King of Capistrano.” He’s one of 14 family members who own the former gas station’s 0.4 acres, the “rump” of what once spanned 600 acres. Because he lives in Pasadena, closer than any other living relative, it fell upon Franks to manage the property.

Franks, a retired economist who worked in the private sector assessing risk for pension funds, said his is a precautionary tale.

He did everything right, watching the Caltrans plans unfold “like a hawk.” When the state agency drew lines around the properties to be affected by the project and didn’t include his 76 station, he believed it.

When the environmental impact report came out, with its pages and pages of economic effects on surrounding businesses, but not his, he believed it.

Franks’ anticipation grew. He knew Caltrans wanted a tiny portion, 500 square feet, of his property, but he was OK with that.

The bigger would be gone. And the newly configured northbound off-ramp couldn’t be better designed to bring traffic to his doorstep if he had planned it himself. A newly remodeled gas station on his property could possibly triple his gallons pumped per day, he figured.

But then the bottom dropped out. In June 2010, Caltrans officials told him they needed at least 100 feet of continuous curb from the corner of the off-ramp, running the length of his property fronting Ortega Highway. That didn't leave enough driveway room for gas tankers to enter the station from Ortega.

We have to do this. Our hands are tied, Franks said Caltrans officials told him.

And Franks believed that too.

“That reduces the value of our land to virtually nothing,” he said. “It had never occurred to me that they would reduce my access to Ortega.”

The negotiating began, Franks said. He managed to get Caltrans to agree he could have another 17 feet of Ortega frontage along the 130-foot northern edge of his property. Combined with a 32-foot easement he shared with the ’s entrance, he thought it might work.

It didn’t.

With his lease up with ConocoPhillips and hopes that some other petrol giant would want a crack at a prime piece of Southern California real estate, , still dreaming a smaller version of the Shell station across the street would rise to take its place.

Just this month, Chevron, which didn’t like Franks’ property for a corporate gas station, got back to him with the results of a query to 25 potential franchisees.

Not one was interested.

But the unkindest cut of all was that Franks learned earlier this year that the law doesn’t demand 100 feet of continuous curb from a freeway off-ramp. Although 100 feet is ideal, Caltrans’ rules actually say, “access control shall extend at least 50 feet beyond the end of a curb return,” according to a document Franks provided.

“They didn’t have to take all our frontage," Frank said. "It was pure BS."

Caltrans officials threw him a bone and granted another 32 feet of frontage access off Ortega.

But Franks said it was too little, too late. To make his site attractive to gas station tenants, he needed the 80 feet he would've been left with if the state had taken the bare minimum, he said.

Now, there’s nothing to do except settle on a price for financial harm to the property, what Caltrans calls “severance damage,” Franks said.

“I call it economic destruction. … We’re looking at a piece of dirt that will never be a gas station again,” Franks said. And a gas station is far more profitable than any other kind of business to which he could lease.

Franks, however, is not suing Caltrans. Caltrans is suing him. State officials filed the suit last month (see attachment). The lawsuit mostly describes the property in surveyor’s terms and says its condemnation is needed for “state highway purposes, a public use.”

It doesn’t offer a specific number, but Franks said Caltrans officials have told him his future earnings are being damaged to the tune of $60,000. He thinks $6 million is more like it.

“They left us with 97 percent, they took 3 percent of the property, but they took 75 percent of the value, is what it came down to,” he said.

Franks said his lawyers expect the litigation to take 18 months to wrap up. Meanwhile, Caltrans expects to start work on the interchange in early 2013. Workers will have access to Franks’ property, even though the state agency doesn’t yet own its sliver, he said.

“That's my tale of woe. ... I thought I had everything under control, and I really had a tiger by the tail,” he said.

Matt Gaffney July 25, 2012 at 04:52 PM
Welcome to dealing with Caltrans, their arrogance never ceases to amaze me. I opened that Union 76 Station working for Ernie Cole in May 1966.

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