Bob and Lupe Fernandez have lived in their house on Warner Avenue in Santa Ana continuously for 60 years.
With working life behind them, they hope to live the rest of their years in the only astlace they’ve called home since 1955 when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president.
But lately, retirement living has been stressful. City officials are planning to acquire and demolish the couple’s home – and residents say at least 30 others — to make room for a street widening project that officials say is necessary to reduce traffic congestion.
At 81 years-old, the prospect of moving is a heavy mental and physical burden to place on the couple, said relatives. Lupe Fernandez needs to use a wheelchair and has a tough time getting around.
But for Bob Fernandez — who according to his daughter-in-law suffered a stroke that severely limited his short-term memory — it’s literally the unthinkable.
“He thinks the city is going to throw him out on the street,” said Fernandez’s daughter-in-law Tina Flores. “It’s very stressful for him. He can’t sleep. We try not to bring it up.”
She says Bob does OK at home because it’s a place he’s been intimately familiar with for six decades and Flores and her husband live just around the corner, allowing them to be there in seconds in case something happens.
But all that could change if Bob is forced to contend with the strange environs of a new home and neighborhood. In that case, Flores says she doesn’t believe her father-in-law will be able to function.
But for now, there’s time. The City Council first must approve an environmental impact report. And for the houses to be acquired, city officials by law will need to determine the fair market value of each home and compensate the owners accordingly.
At the earliest, the street widening would begin in January, 2018, according to the city’s website. The project will also add bike lanes going in both directions, widen sidewalks and add medians.
Council members interviewed for this article said they are committed to a fair process and to negotiating compensation for the kinds of hardships facing Bob and Lupe Fernandez.
“We’re not just going to ram this through and take people’s homes away. It’s not fair, it’s not right, and we need to be transparent and follow the process,” said Councilwoman Michele Martinez.
Councilman David Benavides says the road widening will help alleviate “bottleneck” traffic in adjacent neighborhoods, a situation that arises when cars are looking to avoid congestion on the main roads by taking neighborhood routes.
But he also says the city should compensate specifically for elderly residents who will have a tough time moving.
“That’s something we should be negotiating into the negotiation — compensation to address those needs. So it’s not a burden to the residents,” he said.
Martinez and Councilman Sal Tinajero said they want to make sure the Warner Avenue widening doesn’t end up like past widening projects done on other roads, where it seemed that some property owners received better treatment than others.
“The question is, if we’re going to do it the right way, how much land do we need?” Tinajero said.
At last week’s council meeting, a handful of residents and local activist Madeleine Spencer, who has been helping to organize the residents, expressed their concerns about the widening project.
Councilman Vincent Sarmiento at the meeting said residents should be “treated no differently, and no worse, than anybody else” and told them about their right not just to fair market value compensation for their properties, but also relocation costs and other possible reimbursements.
But Sarmiento, without naming anyone in particular, also referred to “misnomers” about the project that “people recklessly state” and requested city staff to have additional meetings with the residents to clarify things before the issue comes to the council.
So far, Flores claims that the “attitude” from city officials is they’re going to refuse to answer questions until the council approves the environmental study, which could come back to the council within weeks.
Flores says she understand the traffic problems that plague Warner Avenue and agrees that something needs to be done to fix them. But she also argues that widening a single mile won’t do the trick.
“At least have it so it’s a workable plan so they can improve traffic,” Flores said.
Flores has no illusions about what will likely happen. But given her in-laws’ condition, she says she hopes the process drags out long enough for them not to be forced out.
“I know [the road widening] probably is going to happen,” Flores said. “We hope it would take long enough for my in-laws to happily pass away in their house.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the last names of Bob and Lupe Fernandez and their daughter-in-law, Tina Flores.