LAKELAND — The Richardsons were surprised to see a photo of their Lakeland home on front page of The Ledger on Oct. 3 alongside the words “eminent domain.” The day had arrived.
“We didn’t know anything was going on,” Sharon Richardson said. “We’ve been waiting on this for years.”
City commissioners voted unanimously Oct. 2 to approve the use of eminent domain, if needed, to obtain the Richardsons’ 1.3-acre homestead at 613 and 623 Union Drive. The property is needed, the city argues, to build Lakeland Park Center Drive connecting Carpenter’s Way to Union Drive and ultimately U.S. 98 North.
The Richardsons said they received no notice the city was beginning the process of eminent domain. They’ve been aware the city made plans to pave a road through their “piece of paradise” over eight years ago.
“They made an offer to us,” John Richardson said. “If we didn’t accept the offer, we knew this was going to happen. We didn’t know when.”
Three families living on the two properties face a tough goodbye to the last piece of a nearly century-old homestead. And they endeavor to save their unique World War II-era home.
The Richardson family has roots in Lakeland dating to at least the 1930s, according to John. His grandmother, parents and 10 siblings lived in homes south of the current structures until the first piece of the parcel was taken by the state in the early 1960s to build Interstate 4.
John referred to this time as “the move.” His family left the area for approximately a year while I-4 was constructed, away from dust, dirt and debris.
In 1962, John Richardson said his parents purchased a building from the former Morrell Memorial Hospital to renovate into the family home. It was a World War II barracks from Lodwick Airfield — where Tigertown is now — that had been converted to serve as the hospital’s Obstetrics Department from 1948 to 1959.
The building was transported to 623 Union Drive and renovated into the family home. For years, the home bore hints of its former use.
Sharon Richardson said she remembers when visiting her now-husband in the late 1960s, the home had no closets. They used to drive large nails into the wall to have a place to hang their clothing.
Sharon said a retired nurse from Morrell who visited the home told them the dining room used to be the delivery room where hundreds of Lakeland’s Baby Boomers were born. The kitchen was the former dispensary and the living room once served as a nursery lined with rows of newborn babies in bassinets.
“We’ve taken out quite a few walls since then,” she said, sitting at the dining room table.
When the Richardsons purchased the home from family members in January 1981, there were still renovations and issues that had to be addressed. Newspapers were stuffed around window frames to hold them in place during one of Polk County’s coldest winters on record and some hospital tile was still on the walls.
Sharon said she was fearful of losing part of their beloved home to a second I-4 expansion, for which the Florida Department of Transportation took an easement via eminent domain. Coming home from work one day, she found a tractor ripping out three Queen Palms planted at the end of the driveway as a birthday gift.
“I couldn’t figure out what in the world was going on,” she said. “They didn’t notify us they were going to do that.”
Pam Richardson and her husband moved into a second building on the property in the early 1980s to raise their family. They will also need to find another place to call home after over 40 years.
“One of my brothers said, ‘You want to be whole when they take your property. You want to be able to go somewhere else and live as good as you do now,'” Pam said. “I’m not looking to get rich off the taking of our property, but we want to be able to move somewhere and be comfortable for the rest of our life.”
The Richardsons are hoping their property is valued high enough to provide funds to allow the three families to each pay for a new place to live. They have searched but been unable to find a way to stay together but in their own homes.
The Richardson family has sought to sell their 1.3-acre property since 2017. A potential 2017 sale fell through three days before closing, John said, as city officials demanded a 50-foot easement for their road.
The commercially zoned land is listed for sale with Saunders Ralston Dantzler Real Estate for $975,000. Online listings state the property has 330-feet of frontage along I-4 and is less than 3,000 feet from U.S. 98 North.
The family said it has received numerous offers to purchase its land alongside adjacent properties over the years. These sales never went through because many sought to build a multi-story hotel or motel, John said, which were rejected by Lakeland because of the structure’s height and proximity to other homes.
The Richardson family doesn’t see its close proximity to the highway as detracting from the peacefulness of their residential home, but rather a positive. Everything they need is easily accessible, Sharon said, allowing a third family member who doesn’t drive to walk to stores as needed.
Unhappy with city’s timelineLakeland residents call for temporary Northwest fire station
“When we listed the property for sale, we listed the property only not the building. We would be able to move everything off that we want,” John said. “They are going to demolish it anyway.”
The family has contacted an Orlando mover, who they say is willing to attempt moving the nearly century-old house about 10 miles north on U.S. 98 to another three-acre parcel.
Greg James, Lakeland’s assistant director of public works, said the city obtained an appraisal that valued the properties at about $518,000. While the Richardsons said they’ve offered to come down some in price, an agreement has not yet been reached.
Under state laws, the first step of eminent domain is negotiations between the property owner and condemning authority — the city of Lakeland — in attempts to reach an agreed upon price.
If negotiations break down, John said he will hire an attorney as the two parties will likely head to mediation. There, a third-party will try to help negotiations.
“We’ve gone to many mediations before and settled, and that’s okay,” he said. “I don’t know yet if we’ll get that far.”
The property could wind up in court to be heard by a jury of your peers, John said, if the city doesn’t come up in its offering price.
“We would be glad to stay here until we die, but that’s not going to happen,” John said. “It’s not going to happen.”
Sara-Megan Walsh can be reached at email@example.com or 863-802-7545. Follow at X @SaraWalshFl.