Limestone County Probate Judge Charles Woodroof is expected to rule as early as Tuesday whether the city of Decatur has a right to take private property it claims is needed for a planned Alabama 20 overpass.
The city is seeking four parcels as rights of way for the planned $18.3 million overpass west of Interstates 65 and 565 in Decatur-annexed Limestone County.
One landowner is negotiating with the city over a purchase price. The other three were named by the city as defendants in an eminent domain action.
Of those three, one landowner is arguing the government has no right to take the property. All three landowners claim the city is not offering enough money for the properties.
Under state law, Woodroof has 10 days from a May 21 hearing to rule on whether the city has a right to take the property owned by the Garrett Family Trust, the only landowner that contested it had that right. Because Monday is a state holiday — the anniversary of Jefferson Davis' birth — the ruling could come Tuesday.
The trustees of the Garrett trust, John Eyster Jr. and Decatur attorney Larry Weaver, are fighting the city over its right to take 25 acres of the trust’s property for the overpass and, if the judge rules against them, contesting the amount the city has offered to pay.
The Garrett trust is suing the city, the Alabama Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration in federal court over the project, claiming the city needed a ready-to-build project to get a $14.2 million federal BUILD grant so it sent in a defunct plan that used an old environmental study.
Shane Black, an Athens attorney representing Decatur in the condemnation proceedings, said the owners of the Fennel-Noble Trust and Raceway gas station properties agreed at the hearings that the city can take their properties, but owners of all three properties disagree with the appraised value relied upon by the city in its purchase offers.
If the judge rules the city has the right of eminent domain for the project, state law requires that he appoint three people to appraise the properties and recommend a fair price in 30 days.
Sam Frazier, who manages land owned by the Mitchell-Frazier family trust, said he is working on a deal to sell 4 acres of the 500 acres he owns on the south side of Alabama 20 to facilitate the overpass, so he was not named as a defendant in the city's eminent domain action.
The Garrett Family’s property covers 200 acres on the north side of Alabama 20 at Bibb-Garrett Road and includes Apple Lane Farms.
The trustees argue the overpass design is the first step in turning Alabama 20 into a limited access highway. They complained in the lawsuit that the overpass plan requires the city to take too much of their property for the right of way, and that it destroys frontage that would be valuable for future commercial development on the north side of Alabama 20.
“It will limit economic growth instead of spur growth as they say this project is supposed to do,” Eyster said last week.
Black said state law doesn’t allow courts “to second guess the city’s ability to build a road unless what they’re doing is arbitrary and capricious.”
Eyster said they argued at the hearing that the city did not follow the proper process in obtaining the BUILD grant from the federal Department of Transportation.
Eyster accused the city of using a plan, and its environmental study, developed in 2013 for the proposed Sweetwater development anchored by Bass Pro “because it was shovel-ready.” That development fell through.
“When applying for a federal grant, you’re supposed to define the purpose and need and pick five to seven alternatives and then cut that down until they come up with the best solution. They didn’t do that,” Eyster said.
Black said the city’s position “is it’s a good design that takes into account public safety and does so in a way that it doesn’t add congestion in the area.”
Eyster said the overpass design doesn’t solve the highway’s problems, especially given the plan to widen I-565 and the 2021 production start planned at the 4,000-employee Mazda-Toyota Manufacturing USA plant in Greenbrier.
“You will never solve anything until you correct the one-lane overpass and two-lane bridge on U.S. 31,” Eyster said.
Eyster said then city’s plan promotes growth at the Mitchell-Frazier property on the south side of the Alabama 20, “where there are several hundred acres, but it doesn’t do anything for the north side of the highway where there’s 30,000 or 40,000 acres for prime development.”