‘We will sue you’: VTA strong-arming San Jose property owners to sell
Henry Nguyen, owner of Vietnam Printing, is worried how work on a future BART station in downtown San Jose will affect his business. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    As the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority prepares to bring BART through downtown San Jose, some property owners claim the agency is refusing to negotiate terms.

    The second phase of the BART extension to San Jose brings the Bay Area rail line through downtown along Santa Clara Street, a stretch that will displace a number of downtown businesses and residents to make way for ventilation systems and an emergency exit from the BART tunnel.

    This portion of the project, slated to be completed by 2030, requires the agency to negotiate with property owners to sell their land, relocate or agree to their conditions while trying to remain in business. If the owners refuse, the agency could take the properties through a process known as eminent domain, in which government entities force owners to sell their properties when they’re needed for public projects.

    Henry Nguyen is one of those owners right in the project’s bulls-eye. Nguyen has operated Vietnam Printing for 36 years at 1261 E. Santa Clara St. He and his wife recently bought the property that houses his business. He said VTA contacted him last year about buying an easement below the property, which would allow the public transit agency to build a tunnel for a future downtown BART station.

    “If anything happens to the business where the business closes or takes slower to get back on its feet, it’ll take months or years to get to who’s responsible for it,” Nguyen told San José Spotlight. “Then we will be starving.”

    Nguyen’s printing machines are sensitive to vibrations, and he’s concerned the tunneling could affect his business. He attempted to negotiate a guarantee from VTA that would hold the agency responsible for any damages that occurred as a result of the tunnel boring, but was unsuccessful. He was told that he must accept VTA’s offer of $43,000 for the easement, or risk being sued by the agency, he told San José Spotlight. Nguyen has not signed the contract.

    VTA’s board of directors has already approved the acquisition of Nguyen’s property, and no further action is needed from the agency to acquire the easement unless the price is more than 15% higher than the initial offer, a VTA spokesperson said.

    “‘If you don’t want to sign this, we will sue you,'” Nguyen recalled a VTA representative telling him. “I told him that I’m not a person that’s looking to go to court.”

    Livelihood on the line

    David Trinh, who owns the dog training facility RFRD Academy a few doors down from Nguyen, said he’s also concerned with the potential impact of the tunneling on his business. Dogs have sensitive hearing, and if they leave his facility stressed by a full day of noise from the tunnel construction it could damage his reputation with clients, he said.

    Dog trainer David Trinh, owner of RFRD Academy, with a pupil. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    Trinh spoke with VTA’s representative on behalf of his father, who owns the 1269 E. Santa Clara St. property that houses the RFRD Academy. Trinh also had trouble getting a guarantee of protection and responsibility from VTA, he said.

    “It was almost like, ‘Take the money… If anything was to happen since then, you take it up with a different department,'” Trinh told San José Spotlight. “You know how that goes: you try to get somebody to go pay for something, and you have to go to court… We don’t have millions of dollars like they do to fund this, we’re small businesses.”

    VTA did not respond to specific inquiries about the offers made to Nguyen or Trinh, citing the need to preserve property owners’ privacy.

    “VTA works with property owners at every stage, including after filing for eminent domain, to get to a negotiated solution which is always VTA’s preference over litigation,” a VTA spokesperson told San José Spotlight.

    Norm Matteoni, attorney for property owners Brianna and Monique Brown, said the tunnel easements VTA is looking to acquire can burden people with bureaucratic hurdles should they ever wish to redevelop or sell their properties. The Browns own 204 N. Morrison Ave. in San Jose, which VTA is also looking to acquire in order to extend BART to Santa Clara. On Thursday, the VTA board of directors unanimously approved the acquisition of the Morrison property, along with four other properties near The Alameda and on E. Santa Clara Street.

    “If you have future development on your property, as an owner, you have to submit to VTA, probably to BART,” Matteoni told San José Spotlight. “They have the right to review your proposal, and how you’re going to support the structure and any potential interference.”

    204 N. Morrison Ave. in San Jose is one of the properties VTA wants to acquire for the BART extension to Santa Clara. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    To Nguyen and Trinh and other small business owners along the future BART route, it feels like they have no choice but to accept VTA’s offer, with no guarantee of protection.

    “I may be good now, but what about when construction starts, and something happens?” Trinh said. “They’re not going to take care of my relocation… We’re getting pushed out for nothing, and we’ve just got to sit there and take it.”

    Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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