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SURPRISE!, PART 2: City's hands tied when it comes to stopping building in line of highway projects

When the first phase of the interchange rebuild is completed, seen here in an artist
When the first phase of the interchange rebuild is completed, seen here in an artist's rendering, a flyover will directly connect state Route 167 with Interstate 405.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

Editor's note - This is part two of a two-part story about the expansion of Interstate 405 through a newly-built neighborhood on Renton's Talbot Hill. To read part one, please click here.

‘Shaken up, stirred and mixed around’

The news about their house hit the Randquist Chungs like a brick. They had worked hard and done things the right way. Their business, Dojo 3 on Grady Way, was growing, their family was growing and they had settled into the house they expected to be in the rest of their lives.

Now all of that was upside down.

“Our life has been totally shaken up, stirred and mixed around,” Richard said.

After several frantic days where Richard said the couple could not sleep or go to work out of worry, they finally began to accept that they would have to move.

Soon after the news came down, Richard and Lori received a visit from the original property owner, Louis Malesis. According to Richard, he sat at their kitchen table and explained that he had known of the project, but since there was no funding, he did not worry about it. He offered the Randquist Chungs another lot at a reduced price, but the family is not interested.

They simply kept asking how this had happened.

“I felt anger because I didn’t think we should’ve have been able to purchase this house,” Lori said.

Real estate agent Kim Mazzuca, who is handling the homes in the neighborhood for John L. Scott Realty of Renton, was also surprised to find out about the highway.

“I was really upset,” she said.

Mazzuca was about to close on another home in the neighborhood when the news came from the builder.

Since then, not only has she had to tell the Randquist Chungs the news about their house, the deal on the next home up the hill fell through when the buyers learned about the freeway project.

Mazzuca said she had asked the seller and developer about the freeway and was told that WSDOT had decided against the expansion and the homes could be sold without a problem.

Mazzuca said calling Richard and Lori was “one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do” and said she was also shocked and embarrassed by the news.

“I would have never been up there selling those houses if I thought this was going to happen,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years. This has never happened.”

But what struck Richard and Lori, as well as Mazzuca, most was the surprise of it. How was it no one had mentioned the freeway expansion?

“Just tell me I’m buying a house that potentially going to be acquired,” Richard said.

But in reality, the Randquists Chungs were caught in something of a legal gray area.

City’s hands tied

Richard Randquist Chung demonstrates where in his living room a retaining wall is set to be built.For the City of Renton, the I-405 reconstruction project has been a longtime coming. Despite some impacts to the city — like when the famous “S Curves” were rebuilt in the 1990s, impacting Renton Hill — the project is vital to the city’s interests to keep commerce moving in and around the area.

“It’s been a high priority for the city for decades now because of the fact that the most-congested interchange in the state is 167-405,” said Public Works Administrator Gregg Zimmerman.

But even though the city knew of and supported the project, with no funding, technically the $335 million connector project was still not happening. It may have been on the books for “years and years and years,” but without funding, the city was not in a position to tell the landowners to not use their land.

“We legally can’t stop people from exercising their right to use their property,” Zimmermann said. “By law we are constrained.”

In 2007, prior to the approval of the WSDOT environmental document but after the work was completed and submitted, the city received, processed and approved the Lake View Short Plat, as the Talbot Hill neighborhood is officially known.

Even after the environmental document was approved in 2008, the city still could not tell people not to build on their land, as without funding, it literally could have been decades before WSDOT got around to the project.

There was extensive outreach in the early part of the decade, as well as right around the environmental project’s approval, but then “everything goes quiet for a couple of years” while the state waits for funding, Zimmermann said.

“There’s this period of time between 2008 and now where we, as government agencies, have to be very quiet about things,” Zimmermann said, adding again that the city was legally prohibited from talking about potential projects. “Even as we speak, WSDOT doesn’t have money for that project.”

It was in that time period that the plat was approved and the homes began to be built.

“If we denied the property owner the right to subdivide or to build houses, we are basically denying use of that property,” he said, adding “I really feel bad for those people.”

Relocation and recourse

It’s only been a few weeks, but the Randquist Chungs have accepted that they will have to move. The funding released last summer allows the state to begin purchasing right-of-way and that means it will soon be moving day again for the family of five.

“We’ve written off the house,” Richard said.

The next step, according to everyone involved, is working with WSDOT’s relocation team to agree on “fair market value” for their home and to work to find the Randquist Chungs a “comparable house.”

For Richard, the focus now is finding a new home, one that he knows will probably not be as nice as the one they found, or at the price they found it.

“I found a diamond in the rough,” he said.

Along with the close proximity to work – which keeps gas money low for the couple who take multiple trips to and from the business each day in order to check on and spend time with their kids — Richard said every “comparable house” they have looked at — four-bedroom, three-and-a-half baths, three-car garage, fireplace, “bonus room,” triple-paned windows, wood trim — are all coming in at lest $250,000 more than they paid for their home and none of them are anywhere near work.

“Am I going to have a lesser quality of life for my children just because of a 405 expansion that I should have been told about?” Richard asked.

While WSDOT officials have been “cordial” and “responsive,” they are still worried they are not going to be able to replace the house they expected to be their home. Their two oldest children cried when they heard they were going to have to move.

“It’s not the house that’s the matter, it’s the home we’re building here,” Richard said.

The Randquist Chungs have requested to be moved before the beginning of the next school year, so as to cause as little disruption as possible to the kids.

The officials at WSDOT feel their pain.

Cieri said WSDOT will follow the federal Uniform Relocation Assistance and Property Acquisitions Policies Act and the Randquist Chungs will get a fair value for their home, though she realizes that is not the only concern.

“I totally get that it took them three years to find that house and they’re not going to find it again,” Ceiri said. “We’ll do the very best we can.”

The Randquist Chungs are also looking into their legal options and questioning who should have told them what and when regarding their home, though Richard said again the couple is caught in a strange limbo, since technically speaking, nothing has happened yet.

The Renton Reporter made attempts to contact Malesis, but he did not respond in time for this story.

For now, the Randquist Chungs are going on with their lives and spending their time searching for a new home and this time they have some advice for themselves and anyone else in the market for a house: search the internet for upcoming projects in the area, and if all else fails:

“Don’t move close to the highway,” Lori said.

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