Several landowners on the north side of Alabama 20 in Decatur-annexed Limestone County sued the city last week in an effort to block construction of a planned overpass that would connect undeveloped land on either side of the busy corridor.
The federal lawsuit originally was filed in February against the Alabama Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and related entities. The amended suit filed Friday claims subpoenaed documents show the city, including Mayor Tab Bowling and Development Director Wally Terry, were involved “in the flawed process that allowed the (overpass) project … to be approved. The documents revealed that the city, and its leadership, are the main proponents of the project.”
The planned $18.3 million overpass would be funded primarily with a $14.2 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration. The city of Decatur is paying for the engineering and design.
John Eyster Jr., one of the plaintiffs, on Wednesday said one alternative to the planned overpass is to convert Alabama 20 into a six-lane parkway, and another is to redesign Alabama 20 so it is elevated, with roads underneath connecting the two sides of the corridor.
"If Decatur will re-engage with landowners and the community rather than insisting on moving forward with a deeply flawed process, other ideas may emerge that will serve the community just as well,” Eyster said.
Terry said the engineering and design as well as the environmental assessment are complete, well ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline.
“All that’s left is the rights-of-way acquisition,” Terry said.
This process included the city’s filing of condemnation actions last month against property owners north of Alabama 20 who declined to sell rights of way to the city.
According to a Wednesday press release from the landowners’ public relations firm, “This left the landowners only two options: to try to protect taxpayers, their land and the area from what they allege is an invalid, unvetted and ineffective plan or simply to be stuck with the plan.”
Athens attorney Shane Black is working for the city of Decatur on rights-of-way acquisition. He said the original lawsuit filed against ALDOT and the Federal Highway Administration did not slow progress on acquisitions. That will change if the plaintiffs are successful in their amended lawsuit naming Decatur.
Black said four property tracts are targeted for acquisition. They’ve reached an agreement on one tract, and the City Council voted to condemn the remaining three tracts.
Limestone County Probate Judge Charles Woodroof scheduled the initial hearing on the condemnations for May 6. At that hearing, Woodroof will decide whether the city has the right to condemn the properties.
If he rules in favor of the city, Woodroof would appoint a panel to determine how much the city should pay to buy the properties from the landowners.
Black said he’s not sure how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact that hearing now that the Limestone County Courthouse is closed.
“We may be able to do it by videoconference, but we haven’t heard yet from Judge Woodroof,” Black said.
The origins of the overpass design stem from 2014, when Bass Pro announced plans to anchor the so-called Sweetwater development on the south side of Alabama 20 on land owned by the Mitchell-Frazier family trust, along Interstate 65. That project collapsed, and for years the Mitchell-Frazier land was tied up in litigation. But in 2018 the city resurrected the overpass project as part of an effort to promote development of the largely agricultural land along the corridor. Mitchell-Frazier is not a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit.
While the legal issues raised in the lawsuit primarily involve alleged violations of environmental laws in the project’s design, the plaintiffs also claim the overpass project was designed to benefit landowners south of Alabama 20, where Sweetwater was to be, and is detrimental to landowners north of the highway.
“The plan will hinder instead of promoting economic development by removing and limiting access to the developable property in the area. Additionally, the plan focuses on providing access to the south side of Highway 20, which only has about 950 or so acres available for development as it is surrounded by the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge on the west, SR-20 on the north, I-65 on the east, and the Refuge and the Tennessee River to the south,” the amended complaint alleges. “Conversely, the north side of Highway 20 has over 3,000 acres of developable acreage nearby, with even more developable land to the north.”
The landowners argue that expanding Alabama 20 into a “six-lane parkway” is a safer approach that provides multiple points of access to properties north and south of the highway. The overpass design would impede development and block valuable frontage, they say. The lawsuit alleges the overpass is “just the first segment of a much larger scheme — namely, leading to an unvetted limited access highway design for Highway 20.”
In Wednesday's press release, the landowners' representative announced the formation of a “community coalition” that launched a website, ReVision2065.org, in the fight against the overpass.
“The coalition calls for our state and local elected officials to re-engage with affected stakeholders, to complete a revision of the process in hopes of developing a better, holistic plan for the entire Highway 20 corridor from Wilson Street to I-65, and to help create and promote a New Vision and an attractive front door for Decatur beginning at I-65,” Eyster, a trustee of one of the landowners objecting to the overpass, said in the press release.
Unlike in 2014, the latest effort to build an overpass was not prompted by any specific development proposal.
“I haven’t talked to anyone lately,” Terry said. “I know the landowners have had some communication with potential developers.”
Apple Lane Farms restaurant on the north side of Alabama 20 at the corner of the Bibb-Garrett Road intersection is slated for demolition to make way for the overpass.
Restaurant owner Donnie Lane said Wednesday he has not heard anything from the city on when the demolition will occur. In the meantime, he is working on a new location to open this summer. He’s still working through the real estate process to acquire the property, so he would not say where the new restaurant will be.
The lawsuit asks the court to “prevent the defendants from taking any action toward the construction of the project.”
The plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit are Eyster and Lawrence Weaver, as trustees of the James H. Garrett GST Exempt Trust and the Elizabeth Marie Garrett Trust; Lawrence Weaver and Donna Garrett as trustees of the David T. Garrett Family Trust; John B. Noble Jr. and Susan Noble as partners of the Fennel-Noble Family Limited Partnership; and James Speake as partner of the Fennel-Speake Family Limited Partnership.