It's Dumpster-diving paradise.
And the best thing is you don't have to dive into a smelly garbage can.
Thanks to lax security by the state Department of Transportation, hundreds of condemned homes in the pathway of the Squaw Peak Parkway north of Shea Boulevard sit empty, vulnerable to anyone with a pickup truck and a wrench.

On any given day, neighbors say, house-stripping crews cruise the middle-class neighborhood, looking for abandoned houses to rifle. Evaporative coolers, dishwashers, air conditioners, hot water heaters, rain gutters and other household items are plucked with impunity.

"You're afraid to leave your house from the fear that if you don't have a car in the driveway, people will think it is free for the taking," says Krista Wilson, whose home on North 33rd Place will soon be seized by the state.

The state's turn-the-other-way handling of the condemned properties has increased vandalism in the area and created safety hazards for residents who will remain in the 32nd Street corridor, a neighborhood to be bisected by the parkway.

Houses awaiting or under demolition have not been fenced from the street, allowing public access to dangerous areas. The state also has failed to secure the backyards of vacated homes. In at least one case, a full swimming pool was left unattended and unprotected by locked gates, even after ADOT was informed of the problem.

Wilson, and her husband, John, say ADOT's poor handling of the condemnation and demolition of homes is just one of many problems they have experienced since the state began condemnation proceedings last year.

The Wilsons, who have lived in their home for 21 years, say ADOT has grossly undervalued their property and failed to provide adequate assistance to locate comparable nearby housing.

"I'm not the one who wants to sell this house," John Wilson says. "They're [ADOT officials] the ones who want it. Why should I take anything less than what I already have?"

The Wilsons say ADOT appraised their four-bedroom, 1,700-square-foot home on an extra-large, 10,000-square-foot corner--which includes backyard driveways large enough to hold two recreational vehicles--at $91,000. The agency has also offered to pay about $15,000 in relocation assistance.

Krista Wilson says the closest approximation to their home in the same neighborhood sells for well more than $120,000--a far cry from the $106,000 package offered by ADOT.

John Wilson says ADOT used lower-quality homes--one "comparable" home needed a new roof--when setting the appraised value on his soon-to-be-seized residence. Wilson also complains that some of the private appraisers hired by ADOT are former ADOT employees.

"Anybody with a half brain will think that there is a bias here," Wilson says.

Wilson figures the state's inadequate offer will force him to come up with thousands of dollars if he wants to maintain his family's present lifestyle and have his children go to the same schools.

"This means I will have to take out another loan for $20,000 or $30,000 more just to get into another house," he says.

The Wilsons plan to fight ADOT, but have a deadline to move out--September 30. On that date, the water and power to all the homes in the parkway corridor will be cut by the state. ADOT is still reviewing the Wilsons' request to adjust the appraisal, but so far no one from the agency has told them what to expect, John Wilson says.

With fewer than 80 days until the utility cutoff, nowhere to move and no idea how much money the state will provide, the Wilsons are angry. John is even contemplating taking a page from Earth First! protesters. He just might chain himself to the house to prevent the parkway bulldozers from rolling.

Wilson, a state employee with the Arizona Radiation Regulatory Agency, says he's shocked at ADOT's performance.

"If our agency ran anywhere close to the practices I see here, through legislative sunset review, our agency would probably be done away with," he says.

ADOT declined to comment.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty