Construction of the $18.4 million Alabama 20 overpass — meant to create a “New Decatur” in southern Limestone County and improve safety — is set to begin Monday despite pending legal challenges.
The contractor’s notice to proceed starts Monday for Rogers Group, the recent purchaser of Reed Construction, on the project primarily funded by a $14.2 million BUILD grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation along with city funds.
The roughly 300-foot overpass will run north and south over Alabama 20 near Interstates 65 and 565. Apple Lane Farms and the former RaceTrac and Chevron gas stations will be demolished for the project. All three are already closed.
“We probably won’t see much action in the first few weeks,” City Engineer Carl Prewitt said. “They will be putting up construction signs and traffic controls. The utility relocation will begin in a month or so.”
Mayor Tab Bowling said this could be a defining moment for Decatur.
The overpass is in an area of thousands of acres of farmland, 3,200 acres of which were annexed into Decatur in the 1980s in a controversial reach into another county. The area is considered prime for economic development because of its location near Interstates 565 and 65 and quick access to Madison and Huntsville.
“I’m confident you’ll see development take place when the overpass starts taking shape,” Bowling said. “This could be the start of what will become New Decatur.”
City Council President Jacob Ladner called the area a “whole blank slate of Decatur that’s waiting to be developed.” He said the overpass is a huge opportunity that the city can’t miss.
“It’s got massive potential because it can be seen from Interstate 65,” Ladner said.
Bowling said there are developers interested in the Alabama 20 properties, particularly the 500 acres in the southern corner of Alabama 20 and Interstate 65 owned by the Mitchell-Frazier Farms Limited Partnership
The Mitchell-Frazier property was slated to be home of the Bass Pro Shops-anchored Sweetwater development that fell through in 2014. Sam Frazier, the property’s trustee, has an agreement with the city that the city will pay $574,000 for 11 acres of the partnership's land to use as a right of way.
“We’ll see mixed-use development, with a combination of retail-commercial and residential,” Bowling predicted. “On the northern side near the Norfolk-Southern railroad, we expect to see some light manufacturing.”
As much as city officials believe the overpass could kick-start economic development, Prewitt insisted it's primarily needed for safety in an area that’s had a number of serious wrecks and fatalities.
“There are lots of heavy trucks out there, and that creates accidents,” Prewitt said.
He said the trucks use Bibb-Garrett Road and, when they turn left onto Alabama 20, they often have to “hide in the median crossing to complete the turn before a car runs into them.”
While Frazier is on board, the overpass plan is facing opposition from the three other landowners who stand to lose property to rights of way for the project. The three are contesting a court-appointed appraisal commission’s finding that the property being condemned by Decatur is worth a combined $3.6 million.
The Elizabeth Marie Garrett Trust, which owns 200 acres on the north side of Alabama 20 and at the corner of Bibb-Garrett Road, stands to lose 24.53 acres that the commission appraised at $2.5 million. Both the city and the trust have appealed that appraisal.
Garrett co-trustees John Eyster and Lawrence Weaver are also the fiercest challengers. Not only are they challenging the commission’s appraisal in Limestone County Circuit Court, they have a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. While the other landowners are merely challenging the appraisal amount, the Garrett trustees are challenging Decatur's right to condemn the property.
The federal court case hasn’t had significant movement in recent months but a hearing is set for April 7 in the Circuit Court case.
Eyster, who contends the 24.53 acres are worth $10 million, said the city is starting this project “at their own peril. It’s one that comes from horrible leadership." If Garrett wins its challenge to the appraisal amount in Circuit Court, the additional costs would fall on the city.
Eyster said the city risks losing the BUILD grant if it loses the federal court case.
Ladner said he’s discussed the project, which the previous City Council approved, with a number of people and most believe the city should move forward on it.
“There’s a little risk, but I think the reward potential outweighs the risk,” Ladner said.
The Garrett trustees don’t like the overpass design, which Eyster called “convoluted.” The design features roundabouts that are unusual in Alabama and includes ramps, a new access road, improved highway lighting, and accommodations for safe pedestrian access.
The design also takes more of the Garrett property than Eyster thinks is necessary. He would prefer the traditional exit designs like those used off I-565 in nearby Greenbrier and Mooresville.
Eyster claims the deceleration lane on the north side blocks the potential of development on the Garrett and former RaceTrac properties, hurting the value of the rest of the Garrett land that’s not in the right of way.
Prewitt disagreed with Eyster, saying he believes the Garrett property will benefit from the overpass because of the increased safety it provides.
A Circuit Court motion filed Feb. 19 by Garrett attorney Michael Brown objects to the city’s right to take the property. Brown wrote that the overpass was “specially designed to serve” the now-defunct Sweetwater project with a Bass Pro Shops as its anchor.
“The (overpass) was designed for one thing only, and that’s to serve Bass Pro on one side of the highway and that didn’t happen,” Eyster said.
Brown argues in his motion that the overpass project doesn’t have a “well-defined, well-established and well-justified purpose. ... After the proposed Sweetwater development died, the clearly stated purpose and need for the proposed interchange disappeared as well. Without the Sweetwater development there simply was no longer a purpose nor was there a need to build this interchange.”
He also claims the city's environmental study on the impact of the project is deficient, which is also the main basis of the Garrett federal lawsuit.
“The city took the easy route and simply pulled the original Sweetwater plan,” the motion says.
Instead of the mixed-use development the mayor predicts, Eyster said he thinks the overpass will lead to light manufacturing and industrial development that people don’t want.
“We’ll miss out on the Providence-like development and the condos we need so much that would make Decatur more attractive,” Eyster said, referring to the Village of Providence, an upscale mixed-use development in Huntsville.
Eyster said the overpass doesn’t fix the main contributor to traffic congestion, which he said is the one-lane southbound overpass to the U.S. 31 causeway and the traffic lights on the south end of Hudson Memorial Bridge.
The city’s costs are for rights of way acquisition and legal expenses. The final numbers are unknown at this point with the lawsuits still pending.
Decatur Utilities is making $482,788 in improvements as part of the relocation of water and sewer mains for the overpass. The utility plans to replace 4,500 feet of 6-inch water mains with 12- and 16-inch pipes.
DU is also adding an 83-foot extension to the gravity sewer main for future expansion and growth.