Ashe And Watauga county residents were presented with information about the DOT’s U.S. 221 widening project and its impact on area landowners during a free public seminar from HensonFuerst Attorneys on Monday, Feb. 11 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the large courtroom at the Ashe County Courthouse.
The focus of the meeting was on Attorney Anne Duvoisin’s presentation about right-of-way acquisition for the 70 residences and 33 businesses that will be relocated because of U.S. 221’s widening.
The U.S. 221 widening project, also called Project R-2915, will span 16.1 miles from the intersection of U.S. 421 in Deep Gap to U.S. 221 business/N.C. 88 in Jefferson. The new four-lane road will be divided by a grass median between 17.5-36 feet wide. The road will also have eight-foot-wide shoulders (four feet paved and four feet grassed).
This project is estimated to cost $154,710,928 in all. The construction cost for the project is estimated to be $118,400,000, utilities cost is estimated to be $2,313,028, and the cost of right-of-way acquisition is estimated to be $33,997,900, according to Jamille Robbins, the N.C. DOT’s public involvement officer.
Before the project’s construction can begin, the N.C. DOT must buy local properties from their owners. This is known as “right-of-way acquisition.” In order to “demystify” the acquisition process, Duvoisin went into detail about each step in this process for the audience.
The first step in this process is the appraisal phase. “You can’t do anything until your property has been appraised,” said Duvoisin.
A property’s appraisal will be based on the property’s “highest and best use.”
“That doesn’t necessarily mean the current use,” said Duvoisin. Rather, it means the highest value for the property in its best possible use. Although, Duvoisin said the current use and the “highest and best use” are typically the same.
Duvoisin also cautioned the audience: “the appraiser is working for the state, and is not permitted to share an appraisal report with you.”
One audience member voiced his concern with the appraisal process. “I feel like maybe a few of us are going to get it stuck to us,” said the audience member.
“The state has a duty to give just compensation to land to property owners, but has a greater duty to the public,” said Duvoisin to the audience member.
This duty to the taxpayers to get the property for as little value as possible is reflected in the next stage of the acquisition process, the negotiation phase, when right-of-way agents will attempt to negotiate a selling price for property owners.
According to Duvoisin, the DOT will begin acquiring certain properties before others. For instance, right-of-way acquisitions that will face long negotiations will begin first in order to get that process started.
Also, The DOT will acquire cheap properties before more expensive ones. Duvoisin said this will prevent people from building high expectations about pricing; “so people won’t feel like they’re becoming millionaires.”
“They will try to work out a deal with you. If they cannot, they will move to condemnations,” said Duvoisin. Condemnation is the final step for land owners who couldn’t reach a deal through negotiations.
Legally, the DOT has to send the property owner information about their intent to condemn the property, according to Duvoisin. After the DOT files a condemnation suit and the owner answers, a 12-person jury will decide the value of the property in a court ordered mediation.
Duvoisin announced a warning to everyone who will go through the right-of-way acquisition process. She said a land owner shouldn’t tell a right-of-way agent they have no intention of negotiating the price of their land and would rather settle in court.
“Should you hire a lawyer? I can’t answer that for you,” said Duvoisin to those impacted by the project. However, she did give audience members reasons why others have sought out legal advice in the past. For example, law professionals tend to know the state’s appraisers, and are knowledgeable about the acquisition process.
Much of the information shared by Duvoisin during Monday’s meeting was already brought to the public’s attention during the N.C. DOT’s public meeting held on Dec. 4 at Ashe County High School.
Duvoisin reminded the audience the new design for U.S. 221 will feature a “superstreet design,” which will mitigate the amount of left turns onto the road.
Also, Duvoisin reminded the audience the widening project will be split into five separate sections, and each section will begin acquisition and construction at different times.
Sections A and B (from Deep Gap to Fleetwood) will begin right-of-way acquisition as early as this summer and construction is scheduled for July, 2015.
Right-of-way acquisition for Section D (from N.C. 194 to South Jefferson Avenue) will begin in September, 2013, and construction is scheduled for September, 2015.
Right-of-way acquisition for Section C (from Fleetwood to the beginning of N.C. 194) will begin in July 2014, and construction will begin in 2017.
No specific time frame has been set for Section E, which runs from South Jefferson Avenue to N.C. 88. Duvoisin said construction for this “urban area” may not be completed until 2030.
“Nearly 20 years from now, Section E will be finished,” said Duvoisin.
Throughout the meeting, members from the audience gave their opinions and struggles with the project.
One audience member said “I’ve got property that I rent, and when that came out (the original report about the widening of U.S. 221), I immediately lost a few renters.”
Duvoisin added several business owners may be upset that customers cannot turn left to enter their businesses because of the “superstreet design.”
Before the meeting, several people also contacted Duvoisin who are concerned about environmental degradation of streams and creeks near U.S. 221.
In addition to the stream degradation, Duvoisin said she was surprised to find a good portion of the project is in a historic 100 year floodplain.
To calm the audience member’s environmental concerns, Duvoisin said the DOT cannot begin right-of-way acquisition until independent agencies demonstrate the project will not significantly harm the nearby environment through the “FONSI (finding no significant impact) survey.”
HensonFuerst Attorneys is a law firm operated out of Raleigh and, according to the firm’s information, focuses on “injured victims.” To contact HensonFuerst Attorneys, call 1-800-452-9633.