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Living in the right of way
Slow going on road projects frustrates Hall homeowners
0829DOT
Chris and Cindy Thompson are in limbo as to what to do with their home along U.S. 129, which is slated for widening. The Georgia Department of Transportation project is awaiting money before it can begin.

0829DOTaud

Listen as North Hall resident Cindy Thompson talks about her frustrations concerning the planned Cleveland Highway widening that aims to take her property.

Three years have passed since the North Hall couple's property was put in the crosshairs in a major road widening project.

Since then, the financially troubled Georgia Department of Transportation has shelved or put off indefinitely projects statewide, including the widening of U.S. 129/Cleveland Highway from Limestone Parkway to Jim Hood/Nopone Road.

But Chris and Cindy Thompson of Imperial Drive say they believe if the DOT can't go forward with the project they should remove it from public records.

"It's unfair to hold property owners hostage, basically, by publicizing these projects and then not following through with them," Cindy Thompson said.

Once the property has been targeted for condemnation, "you've lost control of your property," she said.

The Thompsons also say they can't sell their house without full disclosure of their right-of-way situation, or they would face a potential legal backlash. They have received no offers from the DOT for their property.

The road project has been on the books since the early 1990s.

"This is the most expensive project of three that will get you to the (planned) Cleveland Bypass," said Teri Pope, spokeswoman for the DOT's Gainesville-based District 1. "This project has two bridge crossings, and bridges are the most expensive thing we build and they take the longest."

The DOT held a public meeting on the project in November 2007.

"We do not have enough money for right of way or construction identified," Pope said.

Right-of-way acquisition is estimated at $68.2 million and construction, $55.7 million, for a project costing nearly $124 million.

"That's a lot of money to widen a 5 1/2- to 6-mile section of roadway," Pope said.

DOT policy calls for "leaving all information on our website until a project goes to the next phase of work," she said.

"What can happen with these big-ticket projects is they can languish for a long time."

But even if the DOT didn't publicize such information, "this route is the approved concept," Pope said.

"I'm sorry that this impacts the property owner, but it really is for the greater good so people can see what the plan is and know what the truth is about what we're working on along the corridor."

Robert W. Chambers, a Gainesville lawyer specializing in condemnation cases, said people in a right-of-way situation have some recourse if they've tried and failed to sell their property.

They can see if certain people - such as real estate personnel and licensed appraisers - agree the road project is serving as a hindrance to a sale.

"The DOT does have a hardship review," Chambers said.

Overall, though, he believes the DOT "needs to (have) a firm and honest dedication to the ranking of a project."

"If you have 28 projects deemed (as priorities), no other project should be acquired and contracted other than those 28, regardless of who the governor is or who is charge of the DOT," Chambers said.

And those projects need to be completed in a timely manner, he added.

As it is, "a lot of people could use the analogy that in the past it seems like the (DOT) hierarchy ... is ADHD," Chambers said.

"At any given time, they've got seven to 10 projects and due to political reasons, they may be working on project A and all of the sudden they're told that A is to go on the backburner and now they're going to work on project D," he said.

"I don't place a whole lot of blame on the foot soldiers. It seems to be the DOT needs to be revamped from the top," Chambers said.

Like the Thompsons on U.S. 129, Nina Joe Byrd has experienced frustrations on her end of the busy roadway, near Sugar Hill Elementary School in East Hall.

She lives in the proposed widening of a 6.72-mile strip of U.S. 129 from Gillsville Highway to just inside Jackson County.

"That (project) has been in the works forever," she said. "I first heard about it at my uncle's funeral in 1993."

Progress was slow but eventually led to a public hearing several years ago at Sugar Hill Elementary, where the talk was about the DOT "making appraisals on everybody," said Byrd, who has lived off U.S. 129 all her life.

She said the project needs to happen.

"What I want to emphasize is the safety," Byrd said. "There have been so many wrecks in my yard."

The road project isn't any nearer to construction, but it did get a recent boost.

The Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization's policy committee voted Aug. 10 to make widening the stretch - a key artery between interstates 985 and 85 - a top priority if funding becomes available.

Also, Pope said that because the DOT's "funding situation is not expected to get much better," the agency is looking at pulling out the two bridges on the North Hall section of the U.S. 129 project and "making each bridge a standalone project."

"We (would) work on the bridge and the approaches to the bridge, so they'd be very short projects, half a mile or less," she said.

"We don't know when we'll have the money to do (the rest of the project)," Pope said.

For now, the Thompsons are just hoping for some resolution.

"We're not wealthy people. My husband and I have worked our entire lives and we have all of our money in our home," she said. "It's not a good place to be."

 

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