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Steve Hansen How meddling government killed my family’s business

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Steve Hansen

Posted: Tuesday, February 28, 2012 12:00 am

The old store once stood brightly in the San Diego sun. It had been in our family since the late 19th century. It was on J Street in the heart of the historic downtown area.

It hadn't been easy to maintain this California relic through four generations. There was the drought and hard times experienced by my great-grandfather from 1889 to 1903. There was a shortage of goods to sell during World War I. The Depression of the 1930s took its toll and, of course, there was World War II.

Even as late as the 1980s, the neighborhood was a home for derelicts. But the city still demanded its taxes and the family still paid them — hoping that someday, the situation would change for the better.

It did.

During the late 1980s and early '90s, the area began to transform into the "Gaslamp District." New upscale shops and hotels appeared. The Padres baseball stadium would be built just three blocks away. We thought our ship had come in, but events would lead to a different course.

We were able to rent the structure to an antique dealer. Everyone was prospering until various acts of government began to insert their harnessing hands.

The first incident appeared when a man in a wheelchair entered the store. He asked the proprietor if he use the restroom. The business owner refused, saying it was not available to the public. But the man persisted, attesting that it was an emergency. Empathy reigned, and the proprietor made an exception.

The next thing we knew, an Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuit had been filed against the business owner and our family. The complaint stated that the towel rack in the restroom was two inches above regulations. However, the "victim" would go away quietly if we paid $2,000 for his "injuries."

It turned out that this guy was backed by a local law firm and had pulled the same ruse on an entire block of businesses.

But our troubles weren't over. Bureaucrats from the state of California, with their lengthy book of regulations, decided to pay us a visit. They asserted that the building was not up to earthquake code (even though it had stood for more than 100 years) and would need to be updated within a prescribed period of time. The cost for retrofitting would be thousands of dollars.

The forces of doom were not done with us yet. Now came a letter from a German developer, stating that he wanted the property for a hotel. He gave us a lowball offer.

A threat was implied if we did not cooperate. The builder claimed he had friends in high places and the property would be seized through "eminent domain."

The family refused, and cunning commercialist made good on his promise. Although we spent $50K in legal fees, we could not prevail. The property was eventually taken, along with several others nearby.

But as fate would have it, the beginning of the 2006 property crash began to take shape, and the developer backed out. The city tore down a century of family history. Where the old structure once stood was now a parking lot.

Today when some people say, "What's happened to our economy?" perhaps they are looking for answers in the wrong places.

Perhaps the real question should be, "How do small businesses succeed and create jobs when the long arm of government only seems to stall and prevent their progress?"

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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