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Riverside Church for Deaf Says Caltrans Underpaid for Its Land

February 06, 2006|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

A church that has served the deaf community for half a century in Riverside is fighting for survival more than two years after Caltrans evicted the congregation and razed its sanctuary to make way for new ramps on Interstate 215.

Calvary Deaf Church, which rents space at another church, has alleged in Superior Court that Caltrans violated state law requiring that places of worship be fully replaced when condemned for public works projects. A trial is set for Feb. 27.

Church leaders say the $1.4 million they got from the state is less than a third of what they need to build or buy a facility equal to the one lost in September 2003. Pastor Tom Mather says he has looked at 35 to 40 sites, all of which were unsuitable or too expensive.

"We will not be able to do what we want to do and go where we want to go unless we have enough money," Mather said. "We might have to start over. We could lose all the work we have done."

Church attorneys allege that Caltrans used outdated sales information to appraise its property, ignored condemnation procedures and broke promises to help find the congregation a new site.

The situation has been complicated by Southern California's superheated real estate market.

Caltrans officials say they adequately compensated the church for its property, which was acquired for a $300-million interchange project involving the 215, Pomona and Riverside freeways. Work is scheduled to be finished late next year.

"We have done a thorough assessment. We followed proper procedure," said Rose Melgoza, a Caltrans spokeswoman. "They received every benefit that could have applied. We are being more than fair."

Shortly after the eviction, Calvary Deaf Church found temporary quarters at the Lutheran Church of the Cross in Riverside, where it rents the sanctuary for services and a classroom for Sunday school.

But the church's 40 to 50 members face the possibility of another eviction when a Baptist church closes escrow on the Lutheran property in the months ahead, Mather said.

The leased facility also doesn't compare with the 1.2-acre complex Calvary Deaf Church owned on West La Cadena Drive in Riverside. It included a church and parsonage, as well as residences that served as a day care center, a meeting place and housing for church members and their children.

"I went by and saw the old church being torn down. It broke my heart," said Socorra Gomez, 65, of Bloomington, a member of the congregation for 35 years. "I hope God will provide for our needs and provide for what we have lost. I wasn't ready for what has happened."

Mather says the temporary location and uncertainty about the future have discouraged members from attending services, hampered the church's ability to assist the hearing-impaired and reduced funding for missionary work.

"We are churchless. We are no longer in control," said Tom Henes, 62, who has attended services at Calvary Deaf Church for 33 years.

Speaking through a sign language interpreter, Henes added, "We are like family. Church for us is like a reunion. When we come here, we are often hungry for conversation, but we can no longer be in fellowship after services because the facilities are inadequate."

Founded by Assemblies of God ministers Beatrice and John Berry in 1956, Calvary Deaf Church is one of a handful of congregations that specifically serve hearing-impaired people. Such churches provide contacts with social service agencies and educational facilities, such as the California School for the Deaf, Riverside.

Ministers and staff are trained to use sign language. The sanctuaries are equipped with special sound systems and large-television screens to display scripture.

At Calvary Deaf Church, Mather and his wife, Joyce, also a minister, use sign language to deliver sermons and Sunday school lectures. Music is played so loudly that the beat and vibrations are sensed by congregants, who sign the lyrics and mouth the words.

"They are the only church in our community that exclusively serves the deaf," said Laurie Pietro, an event coordinator at the California School for the Deaf who has worked with the church. "It would be a huge loss to the deaf community if it closed. They are a very proud culture and proud of what they have created."

John C. Murphy, an Irvine attorney who represents Calvary Deaf Church, said the church complex was worth at least $4.6 million when Caltrans acquired it. Murphy said he would seek, in addition to the $3.2-million difference between their value estimate and the amount the church received, $1.25 million in damages because of escalating construction costs, rising real estate values and the loss of goodwill.

A key issue is whether the church property should be reappraised to reflect replacement costs because Caltrans might not have taken the proper legal steps when it condemned the property.

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