As the Arizona Department of Transportation analyzes community feedback before deciding whether to add a South Mountain Freeway interchange at 32nd Street, Richard Slapke knows he’s damned if it does – and damned if it doesn’t.
A ramp from that interchange would run no more than 10 feet from his backyard. Without it, the freeway won’t be that much farther away.
Or it could be less.
Right now, he’s as much in the dark as six other homeowners on East Redwood Court, just west of 32nd Street, and about 20 more east of 32nd Street along East Cedarwood Lane.
The only exception is a home next door to Slapke, where the owner won’t care what happens: ADOT has owned it for about 10 years.
There was a time when Slapke and his neighbors thought the agency would be buying all those homes.
When he bought the house brand new in 1992, he recalled, “We were advised there was a possibility of a freeway on Pecos Road, but that was it.
“Then I started going to the meetings they were having at Ironwood Library about 12 years ago, and we were told it was determined our house and all these houses were in the takeaway zone,” he continued.
“A lot of people were crying about it. There was no disclosure our home was going to be taken, but I figured, well, let them buy it. Our understanding was that we were going to get fair market value plus 20 percent for moving. Then they changed the plans from 10 lanes to eight.”
And with that change, Slapke said, his and his neighbors went from the takeaway zone to the Twilight Zone, where they’ve been stuck ever since.
A few years ago, he said, there had been talk of the interchange and “we were in the takeaway zone again.”
Then ADOT decided to eliminate the interchange altogether, citing a citizens committee that had argued against it.
Now, ADOT is reconsidering that decision after concerns have been raised by state Rep. Jill Norgaard and city Councilman Sal DiCiccio, among other officials, about the need for a second emergency escape route for Desert Vista High School and other schools in the general vicinity.
But this time, Slapke learned at an ADOT open house on the issue last month, even if the agency goes forward with the interchange, it won’t need to take the homes on Redwood Court after all.
The on-again, off-again matter of eminent domain is just a part of the uncertainty that has bedeviled Slapke lately.
Immediately behind his back wall, a temporary roadway runs parallel to Pecos Road for use by water trucks and other heavy construction equipment.
Just to the south of that path, crews in January began piling up a huge mound of earth that also runs the length of Pecos.
And a little more than a month ago, they topped that mound with rocks that now are higher than the homes’ back wall.
“I went out and asked them ‘What the hell are you doing because they got rocks on this side of 32nd Street but on other side of 32nd, the berm is there but no rocks. I asked, ‘What is it? What’s it going to be?’ I never got an answer.”
Slapke wonders what’s next – and he can’t find out.
“They talked about a sound barrier wall. If they are going to put a sound barrier, is it going to be on top of those rocks? One of the ADOT guys said the sound barrier walls were going to be 100 or 150 feet from our property lines, but now they’re saying there might not be a sound barrier wall at all behind my neighborhood. And what are they going to do with the area from my wall to that pile of dirt and rocks?”
Slapke brought all those questions to the ADOT open house – and got no answers.
“I asked three different people and each one said, ‘Go see that person’ and that person said, ‘Go see that person.’ No one could give me an answer. It was very frustrating. It still is frustrating.”
ADOT said it expects to make a decision on the interchange in August, but that might not end the uncertainty for Slapke and his neighbors. The agency said that even if it decides to include the interchange, there’s a possibility it may not open at the same time the freeway does in late 2019.
It estimates the interchange will add about $10 million to the $1.7 billion cost of the 22-mile, eight-lane freeway, which links the Chandler and West 59th interchanges of I-10 and provides a bypass around the interstate’s heavily congested segment along downtown Phoenix.
If ADOT goes forward with the 32nd Street interchange, it already has decided it will need to acquire only a small piece of land so that the on- and off-ramps will be running not more than a few yards from the backwalls of the houses on Redwood Court and Cedarwood Lane.
On the south side of the freeway in that same area, an interchange also will force ADOT to shrink the width of the multipurpose path it is building for cyclists and pedestrians from 20 feet to 10 feet for an undetermined stretch on either side of 32nd Street near a private self-storage facility.
Slapke said he has raised the issue of how Prop 207 comes into play and has yet to receive an answer from ADOT. In Foothills Reserve farther west from Slapke’s neighborhood, resident Dietmar Hanke has raised the same issue in a lawsuit he’s filed against ADOT. He, too, is still seeking answers.
Voters in 2006 overwhelming approved Prop 207, also called the Private Property Rights Protection Act, which limits the ability of governments to seize private property for public uses.
“I asked at the open house what about Prop 207 bringing down our property values,” Slapke said.
And, as it has been whenever he’s raised questions, “I got no answers. It was like they were deer looking into the headlights.”
Long gone are the happier times in the neighborhood, located just to the south of Akimel A-al Middle and Estrella Elementary schools.
Slapke bought the home as he was relocating his family from the Chicago area, and liked its proximity to schools and the huge expanse of desert to the south.
“It was nice. The kids could walk to school. When the kids were growing up, we had block parties, we had fires at night. It was a community,” he said.
Even when Pecos Road was widened from two to four lanes, he said, the neighborhood was relatively quiet – unlike now, when the rumble of trucks and construction equipment shatters that silence and creates layers of dust on everyone’s back patios and swimming pools.
“We had a beautiful view of the desert and the mountains,” Slapke said.
But now that view is partially obstructed by the rocks and mound of dirt. And it will be obliterated if the sound walls, which ADOT has said will be anywhere from 16 to 20 feet high, are erected behind the neighborhood.
But where the walls will specifically run is yet one of many uncertainties for Slapke and his neighbors.
He feels locked in indecision. He wants to downsize, but he doesn’t even know how badly the market value of his 2,600-square-foot home has been hurt by the construction that already has taken place, let alone the impact of what may come.
“It’s the not knowing,” he said. “The not knowing is what’s very frustrating.”