A group of local landowners has filed a lawsuit in an attempt to block construction of the planned $18.3 million Alabama 20 overpass in Decatur-annexed Limestone County.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday, alleges a “deeply flawed process and specific violations” of the National Environmental Policy Act related to the proposed interchange just west of Interstate 65.
The plaintiffs in their complaint ask that the court "prevent the defendants from taking any action toward the construction of the project."
The suit was filed against the Alabama Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama.
The city of Decatur is not a defendant in the case despite handling the grant process and coordinating the engineering and design of the project. City Attorney Herman Marks on Monday said he has a copy of the lawsuit but has not had a chance to review it.
Mayor Tab Bowling said, “I’m very disappointed in this lawsuit and the attempt to stop progress, especially in this area where there are tremendous safety concerns."
Plaintiffs include John Eyster Jr. and Lawrence Weaver as trustees of the James H. Garrett GST Exempt Trust and the Elizabeth Marie Garrett Trust, and John Noble Jr. and Susan Noble as trustees of the Fennel-Noble Limited Partnership, and James Speake as partner in the Fennel-Speake Limited Partnership.
ALDOT is accused of submitting an outdated set of plans — first developed in 2008 for the “Sweetwater” development to be anchored by Bass Pro Shop — as part of its application for the $14.2 million Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development, or BUILD, grant.
The grant was awarded even though the Bass Pro Shop-anchored development is no longer planned at the interchange. It was approved despite changes to the plan that could impact the adjacent Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit alleges that ALDOT, working closely with the city of Decatur, submitted the “outdated” set of plans to the federal government in hopes of securing the grant.
In a press release from the plaintiffs, Eric Higgins, a real estate agent representing two of the families in the suit, said the plan ignores the landowners’ concerns.
He said the plan “reduces the value of our land, undermines our rights as private property owners, and does not address the real issue of congestion west of the proposed interchange.
“It would be a shame to waste $18 million dollars on an interchange designed for the past, instead of fixing the real problems we currently face in the corridor.”
One of the plaintiffs’ main complaints since the release of the design has been the amount of right of way needed for the project.
Some property owners presented alternate plans that would not have turned Alabama 20 into a limited-access highway, including some plans that envisioned converting Alabama 20 into a boulevard with multiple cross streets.
“We believe there are other access options that will allow farmers to keep using their land, improve access and safety for everyone using Highway 20, and allow this section of Decatur to be planned for future success,” Eyster said. “The planned intersection unnecessarily takes land from property owners and limits the future options of every landowner on this corridor.
"With careful planning, we believe this area can become a front door to north Alabama, possibly incorporating agricultural uses with a mixed-use development like Ross Bridge, Hampton Cove or Providence, that would give a much-needed boost to Decatur.”
However, Bowling said there are tremendous safety concerns with their proposal.
Wally Terry, city director of development, said AECOMM, the project’s engineering firm, reduced rights of way for the overpass from 75 to 44 acres, with 27 on the north side and 17 on the south side.
Terry said rights of way acquisition for the project is in progress, and then the state would award the construction bid in the fall.
In the complaint, the landowners complain they will be harmed by "a portion of the land being taken from the trusts by governmental authorities and by the devaluation of portions of the land surrounding the project."