The city of Bakersfield could start buying up homes in the Westpark neighborhood in the potential pathway of the Centennial Corridor freeway as early as this spring, a year before the final decision is expected on the project's route.

City staff have applied to the California Department of Transportation for the go-ahead to make early acquisitions, a step allowed under the federal transportation bill signed last year. But first Caltrans has to implement the bill's provisions, said Don Anderson, the city's real property manager who's coordinating how the city will buy up property for the project.

Caltrans has told city staff that it could decide as soon as March whether the city will be allowed to make early acquisitions, Anderson said. If that all falls in place, the city could start buying properties right away.

"We've been trying to figure out how we can qualify for this, because we want to get started as soon as possible," Anderson said.

The Centennial Corridor is a long-studied and debated project to extend Highway 58 west to the Westside Parkway and eventually Interstate 5. It's the most expensive of the Thomas Roads Improvement Program projects and will be mainly funded with already-approved federal dollars. It also would take down the largest number of homes of any TRIP project, about 200, plus many businesses and a handful of schools, apartment buildings, duplexes and other multi-family residences.

Matt Rocco, a Caltrans spokesman in Sacramento, said the agency is working to implement the new provisions of the federal transportation bill, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act. Those provisions would apply here. Under the former federal rules, early acquisitions only could happen in a few instances, such as to protect a corridor for a later project, an instance that doesn't apply in this case, Anderson said. The new federal rules broaden those parameters, he said.

"It's being reviewed as we speak," Rocco said of Bakersfield's application to make early acquisitions. He said he wasn't able to give a definitive time for when Caltrans might reach a decision.

Caltrans staffers haven't made a final decision on which of three routes to build, but they have recommended one, Alternative B, which they say wouldn't cut through historic properties or parks. That route is estimated to cost $565 million to $575 million. Of that, $195 million would go toward right-of-way costs, including property acquisitions and relocation expenses for residents and businesses, Anderson said.

Even if the city could make early acquisitions, well before Caltrans issues its final decision on the project's route in spring 2014, that doesn't mean the choice is a done deal, Anderson said. For one thing, no homes would be torn down before Caltrans' final decision, he said.

"(With) acquiring properties prior to the completion of the environmental document, you're not biasing the outcome," he said. "If we get all the authorizations we need to expend monies, and they decide not to do the project or they choose to do another alternative (route), we end up owning those (properties). ... We can sell off all the homes back to the people (who the city bought them from), give them the right of first refusal. If they don't want them, then we'd sell them to whomever. We'd basically unravel it all."

Property values

It's voluntary for people to sell their homes early. Somewhere between 25 and 50 people have told the city they'd be interested in doing so, Anderson said.

Their homes would be assessed by an independent appraiser hired by the city. The owners should give any information about the property's value, improvements and the sale prices of similar homes they know of, Anderson said. The city also will reimburse owners up to $5,000 if they want to hire their own appraiser for a second opinion. If they do and there is a difference in the appraisals, the city works with the owner to reconcile that difference, Anderson said. The city also pays for relocation expenses.

"We try to hire the most qualified appraisers we can," Anderson said. "We want to make sure people get a fair shake."

Some residents have said the value of their homes will be dragged down by the stigma of a major pending construction project.

But appraisals for the homes to be purchased would be based on recent sale prices in a comparable neighborhood, not prices for homes in the path of the freeway, said Anderson and Gary Crabtree, a longtime appraiser of real estate in Bakersfield.

What is a comparable neighborhood is something the appraisers will decide based on amenities, the types of homes and several other factors, Anderson said. The city will likely have them meet to get consensus on what areas they'll look at for comparison sale prices.

"Part of the appraisal process that many people do not understand is the appraiser will not use ... we won't use comparable sale prices from the neighborhood," Crabtree said. "We will select what we consider to be an alternative purchase outside the neighborhood." Something comparable to Westpark might be the Park Stockdale or Quailwood areas, he suggested. "Someplace that is close by but is not subject to the negative stigma of the freeway."

That stigma has already settled on Westpark, Crabtree said.

"As soon as (the project route) is selected, it becomes a negative stigma on the neighborhood and will last until the thing goes away or the project is built," he said.

True, had the acquisitions happened at a different time, say five years ago, before the recession, residents might have gotten more for their houses, Crabtree said. But that's also relative -- they probably would've paid more for a house to relocate to, as well.

Crabtree has asked to be considered for work as one of the appraisers the city will use to value homes in Alternative B's path. He's also on the board of First Assembly of God Church, which would be about a block from the freeway if Alternative B is built.

The city would also buy dozens of commercial properties, including the Wild West Shopping Center, the Little Red School House, Jolly Kone, Citizens Business Bank, Larson's Food and Gas and many more. Commercial acquisitions are much more complex than buying a house, Anderson said. The property itself has a value, but there are lots of other factors, such as whether the property is owned or leased, fixtures, equipment and the value of the business's goodwill.

If a homeowner owes more on the mortgage than the home's value, the city needs to have the home's title free and clear, Anderson said. That might mean the city negotiates separately with the mortgage lender and pays off the mortgage, but the homeowner would likely get nothing in that case.

Residents' concerns

"Ultimately, the process is fair, probably more than fair, for the people whose homes are going to be taken," Crabtree said. "It's the people that have partial takes or are going to remain in the neighborhood -- those are the people who are going to be most negatively impacted."

It's true that those business owners and homeowners whose property won't be touched by the project also wouldn't be compensated by the city, even if their front-yard view includes a sound wall in the future.

Some residents are already concerned about the lasting effects of staying behind rather than relocating.

Crabtree has seen the effect adjacent freeway projects have on home values in Bakersfield. He was the appraiser for a home on San Simeon Avenue several years ago that backed up to the path for the Westside Parkway. The house was being sold and had a buyer, but when the freeway project was announced, the buyer rescinded the offer.

A second buyer purchased the house, but for $60,000 less than the original agreed-on price of $365,000, Crabtree said.

Doug Pike, the superintendent of the private Stockdale Christian Schools, said he is concerned the area around the freeway will degrade into blight.

"To me, it's very disappointing that they've presumably chosen that particular route," less than a block away from the church and schools, Pike said.

"It's definitely going to be a negative effect to the entire community," he said. The effect on air quality from construction and, later, increased traffic will be worries, particularly for children playing outside at recess. So will safety, he said.

One woman recently toured the schools' campus and was considering enrolling her child, but she decided to hold off until the final decision is made on the freeway project, Pike said.

"The fear of the unknown is tough," he said.

Michael Werlinich said the home he recently bought on Kentfield Drive is in the path of Alternative B. He said he is concerned about what will happen to the neighborhood if his neighbors decide to sell early.

Werlinich is part of the Westpark Homeowners Association, a group of Westpark residents that formed to fight the project through their neighborhood, by legal means if necessary. If people sell early, that could take the fight out of those who are left behind and would otherwise oppose the project, he said. Moreover, he said he's concerned what type of renters might move in.

"If my direct neighbors go, that will make us feel uncomfortable," Werlinich said. "I would have possible neighbors that we don't get along with, don't like, don't feel comfortable around. So we wouldn't fight. We would probably leave."

"(The city) have to move in renters by law because they can't let a property go empty" and run the risk of vandalism, he said. "So either way, they use the law to hurt us even more."

Anderson said that if the city makes early home purchases, it will rent out those houses, either to the previous owner or someone else, but they won't leave them sitting vacant, which could attract squatters and other problems.

"We're going to be good stewards. We're going to want good tenants," he said. "We don't want to create problems."