SM man takes VTA to court

RVs sit on the property adjacent to the San Martin Caltrain

SAN MARTIN
– The Valley Transportation Authority’s use of eminent domain to
seize land and expand parking at the San Martin Caltrain station
will be on trial Wednesday in Santa Clara County Superior Court in
San Jose.
SAN MARTIN – The Valley Transportation Authority’s use of eminent domain to seize land and expand parking at the San Martin Caltrain station will be on trial Wednesday in Santa Clara County Superior Court in San Jose.

Challenging the VTA will be Prem Gupta, the San Martin man whose land just east of the current Caltrain station parking lot at the corner of Depot Street and San Martin Avenue was taken from him through the power of eminent domain last March.

The VTA won’t comment on Gupta’s case, but a spokesman said it is very unusual that a land issue case such as Gupta’s goes to jury trial.

“In the vast majority of situations negotiations continue with the property owner and a mutually agreed upon conclusion is reached,” said VTA Spokesman John Pilger. “In a much smaller number of cases, a jury decides the issue.”

Gupta is claiming that the VTA’s land appraisal for the 1.82-acre lot is less than half of actual value as determined by an independent appraiser hired by Gupta.

“This is not acceptable to have my land taken and not given my fair market value,” said Gupta, who purchased the land from Union Pacific in 1998. “This is why we want a jury to decide.”

Eminent domain is a procedure where a government agency takes private property in the public interest – such as widening roads, or in this case, expanding parking for a public transportation facility. If a settlement cannot be reached between the two parties on the fair market value of the property, the case then goes to court.

According to documents provided by Gupta, the VTA’s real-estate office appraised the land at $560,000, while Gupta’s private assessor determined the value to be $1.15 million.

The VTA first contacted Gupta about buying or leasing the land in January of 1999. Three months later Gupta received a letter from the VTA saying they were not interested in the land, Gupta’s documents show.

Then in February of 2001 the VTA hired an appraiser and contacted Gupta about purchasing the land, but Gupta declined because he had already begun leasing the property to Dan Gamel Inc. of Morgan Hill for use as one of the company’s RV Parks.

In November of 2001, Gupta received another letter from the VTA, saying eminent domain action had been filed for the land. The parcel was then awarded to VTA through a court order on March 10, 2002 for the price of $560,000, according to VTA and court documents provided by Gupta.

Pilger would not talk about the VTA’s offer for Gupta’s land, but he did explain the VTA’s expansion plans in San Martin.

“… VTA is expanding parking facilities and outside boarding platforms for Caltrain at San Martin,” Pilger wrote in an e-mail to The Dispatch. “Part of this work requires use of the land on the east side of the rail platform. (The strip of land on the west side of the platform is already being used for parking.)”

The land in dispute – which has been legally owned by the VTA since eminent domain was enacted in March – is still being used as a RV Park. Eighteen months remain on the current leasing contract between Gupta and Dan Gamel Inc., but the $4,500 rent has been collected by the VTA since March, Gupta said.

“Since the VTA took over my land it has put me and my family in hardship,” said Gupta, who lives only two blocks from the site and has lived in South County since 1985. “Plus they haven’t done anything with the land in seven months – they’re just collecting the rent.”

When Gupta bought the land from Union Pacific in 1998, he had planned a two phase project in which he would lease the land for three years before developing a small industrial park, housing businesses such as automobile mechanic garages, insurance offices and veterinarian facilities.

Gupta had even gotten approval for the two-phase project on the commercial/industrial zoned land from the San Martin Planning Committee and the county planning commission.

Gupta, who is asking the VTA to award him the $1.15 million the property is worth according to the assessment done by Huberg and Associates Real Estate Appraisers in San Jose, thinks the jury will agree with him that the VTA is “being unreasonable.”

“I’m self-employed,” Gupta said. “This is my planned retirement taken by the VTA – now I have to start over again. I’m trying to put my daughter through college and save some money for the future by making an investment, and this is not right that the government agency can do what they want.”

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