Portage auto body shop owner evicted as dispute with county continues

Dispute centers around eminent domain seizure
Portage auto body shop owner evicted as dispute with county continues

The former owner of a now-closed Portage auto body shop lost another battle in his fight Wednesday against Columbia County over its eminent domain seizure of his shop.

At around 5 p.m., the deadline given to John Gruber, former owner of Gruber Automotive, Columbia County deputies evicted Gruber from the premises. The former Gruber property is part of a larger project to build the new Columbia County Administration Building and Health and Human Services Building.

Gruber, who had been in business for more than three decades, has been fighting the county’s decision. He said he and three other employees are now out of a job.

“It’s been a long two years, I’ll tell you,” Gruber said after his eviction. “(I) never thought it would come to this.”

The county seized the property using eminent domain after Gruber and Columbia County officials could not come to an agreement to purchase his property. Thirteen owners had reached agreements to sell their property to Columbia County.

“I just don’t see the value of taking 14 properties away. That’s why I fought,” Gruber said. “It’s just been tough.”

On Aug. 8, the county’s Condemnation Commission awarded Gruber $140,000. By law, Gruber can receive money to cover moving costs.

Gruber has said he disagrees on the county’s estimated property value and said he has not received any money.

Mark Hazelbaker, an attorney representing Columbia County, disputed Gruber’s allegations.

“He doesn’t have a leg to stand on,” Hazelbaker said. “We can’t give him money he’s not entitled to.”

Hazelbaker said Wednesday Gruber has never given his own appraisal for the property and refused to do so in the Aug. 8 Condemnation Commission meeting. He said Gruber is entitled to the difference between the cost of his old shop and a new shop, moving expenses, increased utility costs and the costs of changing advertising.

But so far, Hazelbaker said Gruber has not given the county any of those expenses and has been using the property six months without paying rent or taxes to the county. He said Gruber could have claimed the $140,000 sum for his property, currently held by the court clerk, had he not chosen to mount a legal battle.

“I have told him several times to turn in expenses and we’ll pay him,” Hazelbaker said. “He has to play by the rules that exist, not the rules that he wants.”

Gruber said he plans to keep fighting.

“Columbia County(‘s) unneeded project is a fraud,” he said. “I just got caught up in it and I just want just compensation so I can move on.”

A jury trial in Gruber’s case is scheduled for March 3 at 8:30 a.m. in Columbia County court.