Perris Dam seismic retrofit project hurting businesses based at nearby fairgrounds, protesters say

Leticia Juarez Image
Friday, December 9, 2022
Perris dam retrofit project could hurt nearby businesses, owners say
Local business owners say the Perris Dam Modernization Project is hurting them. Now they're in a battle against the California Department of Water Resources, the agency in charge of the construction.

PERRIS, Calif. (KABC) -- At the Perris Fairgrounds, popular events from high-speed racing to live Latin music concerts keep drawing thousands of fans to the grounds annually. But a construction project on the nearby Perris Dam, located directly behind the venues, has pitted the businesses on the fairgrounds against the Department of Water Resources, the agency is in charge of the multi-year retrofitting project.

"We are for the project," said Don Kazarian with the Perris Auto Speedway. "I mean if that dam lets loose, I'm going to be one of the causalities because I am usually here seven days a week 12 hours a day. Bottom line is we want to co-exist."

Kazarian and his family have operated the dirt race track for nearly 30 years, but with the construction set to begin next year it could mean the end of an era for race fans.

The Perris Modernization Project is in its third and final phase which calls for a two-mile channel to be used to rapidly lower the water behind the dam during an emergency such as an earthquake. According the Environmental Impact Report, construction will heavily impact the fairgrounds with a schedule set for work to be done seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. It also calls for road closures, lane reductions, and an area to stage construction equipment.

"They are panning on taking 90% of my parking where my clients are going to park," said Xavier Ortiz, owner of Toro Wapo Arena Event Center.

Ortiz said he was invited to build the event center to in 2018 as a live music and rodeo entertainment venue, but delays in construction start and the lack of a timeline by the DWR have set him back.

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"We have to give arts a deposit to secure them for our shows 50% normally, with a huge construction like that coming to the property I didn't feel comfortable paying those deposits," said Ortiz.

In February, Ortiz, Kazarian and A Family Fair, Inc which provides concessions for the events sued the DWR after they say appraisals for damages from the department where under valued.

"We were able to present our appraisals and they ghosted us they stopped talking to us. We tried to get them back to the table and speak to them again they didn't do it and finally they forced us to go ahead and litigate and sue them," said Ortiz.

Since then, the three businesses operators say its been a battle to save theirs and the livelihoods of their employees and surrounding businesses.

"Seems a bit outrageous. The least the government can do is attempt to work with business owners to keep them in business while ensuring that this Perris Dam project moves forward to completion," said State Sen. Richard Roth, who represents Western Riverside County.

Roth said he reached out to DWR after learning about the issue during a November meeting with other local leaders and that he was given assurances that the department would resume communication with the business operators which didn't happen.

"I see my task ahead as making sure the Department of Water Resources actually connects with these business owners discusses the construction schedule that is planned, attempts to adjust the construction schedule," said Roth.

Riverside County Supervisor Kevin Jeffries is working to find a solution both as a race fan and supervisor. Jeffries said he sent a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom asking him to step-in and get DWR to work with the fairground businesses.

"Trying to get the governor to get the Department of Water Resources to communicate and try to bend over backwards to help these businesses, this entertainment venue stay open going forward," said Jeffries.

In response to Eyewitness News, the California Department of Water Resources sent this statement:

Department of Water Resources (DWR) has been working with the communities, cities, and county of Perris on the planning for Perris Dam's ERF since 2010.

The Emergency Release Facility project at Perris Dam in Riverside County is part of DWR's larger Perris Dam Modernization Project. This project will improve the safety of the dam facility with respects to earthquakes and extreme flooding and will protect over 6,000 residents and developments downstream of the dam. These improvements will provide 100-year flood protection to the community and make improvements that will also protect a local school, interstate 215 and a water treatment plant. In addition to improved flood safety, the project includes community infrastructure improvements like new levees, bridges, a local drainage system, as well as improved roadside landscaping.

The project is still in the planning phase with expected startup in 2023 and completion in 2025. More than 100 meetings have been held with city, county, local businesses, and State agencies about this project. DWR has also completed an Environmental Impact Report that includes project impacts and is available at website. If the project does move forward, any tenants who suffer damages as a result of the project would receive appropriate compensation for their damages. In fact, the Department has already hired an independent appraiser to determine the value of any potential loss of goodwill for all the tenants at the fairgrounds. Those appraisals have been provided to the tenants as possible compensation if the project moves forward and the tenants suffer damages.