Citizens challenge NCDOT’s decisions

Concerns raised at N.C. Turnpike Authority meeting

by Josh Whitener

STALLINGS — It’s been more than six weeks since the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled the N.C. Department of Transportation violated federal regulations, but concerns regarding the controversial ruling and the NCDOT’s subsequent decisions are still strong among citizens.

The N.C. Department of Transportation’s N.C. Turnpike Authority held a community meeting Monday, June 18, at Next Level Church in Stallings to update the public on the status of the Monroe Bypass. The project came to a halt May 3 because of the lawsuit filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center. The court ruled the NCDOT violated federal mandates by not conducting the proper study of the bypass’s environmental impact.

Dozens of citizens showed up for the meeting, which included presentations on the status of the bypass and the acquisition of right of way parcels for the future corridor. Community members had the opportunity to ask questions and voice concerns to right of way agents regarding project schedule, relocation and financial compensation.

The main topic of concern for the evening was the NCDOT’s decision not to follow through with offers on right of way parcels made after the court’s May 3 ruling.

Jane Nelson, right of way manager of Monroe, explained in a presentation that the NCDOT had already made offers on right of ways before May 3.

“We had only initiated 84 parcels as of that time,” Nelson said. “Out of those 84 parcels 15 had received offers as of May 3, which was the date of the court ruling. Out of those 15, all of them have settled except for one.”

But the NCDOT continued to make offers on right of way even after the court’s ruling until told by the Federal Highway Administration to stop production May 21. During that time, an additional five offers were made on parcels of interest, but because they were made after the court’s ruling, the NCDOT is not obligated to follow through with the offers, leaving the property owners in a quandary.

Mark Trickey, an Indian Trail resident who owns one of the five parcels that received an offer between May 3 and 21, feels he got a raw deal.

“If I went to somebody’s house that was for sale and I handed them an offer with a number and everybody shook hands and agreed, I’d be in court right now for a breach of contract if I did what (the NCDOT) did,” he said.

The NCDOT may still follow through with those five offers as well as some of the other remaining 64 parcels of interest via a method of “hardship acquisition.” If a property owner is experiencing a situation – an illness, financial distress or job transfer – where not selling the land would create a considerable hardship, he or she can submit a letter requesting the NCDOT consider following through with the offer.

The letter must be accompanied by backup documentation proving the hardship situation. A committee will review the letters on a case-by-case basis, and the Board of Transportation will ultimately have the final say in whether or not an offer will be made.

Trickey plans to pursue the hardship acquisition course, as he cannot sell or rent his property with the looming threat of the state taking it to be used for the bypass.  But he feels the NCDOT should be doing something more for the five property owners who received offers that were subsequently withdrawn.

“I understand the legal predicament that they’re in, but I find it hard to believe that they can’t scrape up enough money for the five of us,” he said. “It’s just a good faith gesture, if anything.”

But some concerns went beyond hardship cases. Mark Harris, a Monroe resident, was within two days of receiving an offer when the NCDOT stopped right of way production. Harris had already begun searching for new land to purchase in the Waxhaw and Unionville areas and was interested in several properties.

“I can tell you five houses that we looked at are gone,” Harris said.

The NCDOT hopes to restart the project in early 2013, provided the federal court of appeals decides to hear the case and reverses the decision in a timely manner, which, Nelson said, would allow the NCDOT to follow through with the same offers presented to property owners last month.

“We certainly will present those offers again based on their approved appraisals,” Nelson said. “We’re hoping that this can be resolved probably, hopefully, by the first of the year or so, the first quarter, (so) we feel that those offers will still be valid numbers.”

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