With one of two court claims seeking to block an overpass project on Alabama 20 rejected, the city of Decatur is moving forward to close a portion of Bibb-Garrett Road as construction begins.
The Decatur Police Department announced it plans to close Bibb-Garrett Road from Alabama 20 to Limestone County 45 next week in anticipation of construction of the roughly $18.2 million road project.
Funding for the project, located between Interstate 65 and U.S. 31 in Decatur-annexed Limestone County, comes from a $14.2 million federal BUILD grant and the city’s general fund.
A Limestone County Circuit Court ruling earlier this month ended a landowner's attempt to block condemnation efforts for the project. Trustees of the Elizabeth Marie Garrett Trust also are pursuing a federal lawsuit that seeks to prevent Decatur from using the BUILD grant, arguing that the city violated federal environmental laws in securing it.
Mayor Tab Bowling said the city is closing the southern section of Bibb-Garrett Road not only for construction but as a safety measure to stop the many large trucks from using it to enter Alabama 20.
The city also asked the Alabama Department of Transportation to close the crossover at the center of Alabama 20 at Bibb-Garrett Road. “It’s just as dangerous for cars to slow down to make a U-turn,” Bowling said.
Alabama 20 has no traffic controls between U.S. 31 and I-65, and its speed limit is 60 mph.
City Engineer Carl Prewitt said the construction of the overpass, meant to spur economic growth, remains on track to start in March.
John Eyster Jr. and Lawrence Weaver, trustees of the Elizabeth Marie Garrett Trust, filed the motion in Limestone County Circuit Court to dismiss the city's action to condemn 24.5 acres of Garrett Trust land for use as a right of way. The Garrett Trust and two other property owners also objected to the amount a Limestone County Probate Court-appointed appraisal commission ruled the city must pay for the rights of way for the overpass. The city also objected to the amounts.
In a Jan. 15 order, Limestone Circuit Court Judge Chad Wise refused to halt condemnation proceedings but made no ruling on the condemned properties' values, saying the matter should be determined by a jury.
One of the the Garrett Trust's arguments involved the BUILD grant and that the city failed to follow federal environmental laws in securing it.
Wise ruled that whether or not the city keeps that grant was irrelevant to the issue of whether it had a right to condemn property for rights of way.
"Those claims amount to a challenge of the validity of a federal grant, but how a city plans to fund a project is immaterial to a condemnation case," Wise ruled.
He also ruled that any decision by the federal court related to the city's compliance with federal environmental laws should not delay the Circuit Court decision.
The Garrett Trust also complained in Circuit Court that the city's eminent domain action destroys the value of an isolated acre of the trust's land. Wise ruled that if the trust is correct, then the city should compensate it for this acre as well. He ordered that the trustees and the city meet to settle the issue, but said he would hold a hearing in April if the matter is not resolved.
The appraisal commission valued the Garrett Trust's 24.53 acres at $2.5 million, a $1.47 million increase over the city’s offer for the land, which is part of the trust's 200 acres on the north side Alabama 20 and at the corner of Bibb-Garrett Road.
The city offered $326,140 for Fennel-Noble Trust’s 1.39 acres and the appraisal commission valued the property at $500,000. The city offered $319,764 for RaceTrac’s 2.33 acres, and it was valued at $600,000 by the appraisal commission.
The landowners north of the highway have argued that the overpass project is designed to benefit the Mitchell-Frazier Farms Limited Partnership's 600 acres south of the highway at the expense of theirs because it blocks a large amount of frontage on the north side of Alabama 20 and divides developable tracts of land.
In order to enter the rights of way to begin construction during the appeals process, the city was required to deposit with the court an amount double the appraised value of the land, which it has done.
The Mitchell-Frazier Partnership, controlled by Sam Frazier, negotiated the sale to the city of an 11-acre right of way on the south side of Alabama 20 for $574,000.
Eyster on Tuesday said the city is being reckless in proceeding with the construction when it could lose the BUILD grant if he is successful in federal court.
"If they go ahead with this project, it’s at a considerable risk," Eyster said. "They’re risking losing the federal grant, and then the city would be on the hook for $14.2 million.”
Eyster also said he may appeal Wise's ruling.
After 23 years, Apple Lane Farms closed its restaurant at Alabama 20 and Bibb-Garrett on Jan. 16. This building sits in the planned route for the overpass.
“It’s been a good location for us,” owner Donnie Lane said.
The restaurant, which also has a Madison location, plans to reopen on Beltline Road Southwest, next to Alfonso’s Pizza. This restaurant is on track to open in about June, Lane said.
Lane said the employees from the closed Alabama 20 restaurant will work to help open the new Decatur location and possibly help at the Madison store.