Widening Spout Springs Road will take two or three years of hard labor, more than $100 million and require small mountains of dirt and asphalt to be shoveled around South Hall from 2019 to 2021.
Problem is, that’s the straightforward part.
Stretching 6.1 miles from Interstate 985 to Thompson Mill in Braselton, the project will leave Georgia and federal taxpayers $19 million-a-mile lighter in the wallet. All told, $115.9 million will be spent squeezing four lanes into the busy corridor between Flowery Branch and Braselton, South Hall’s bustling population centers.
But before any hard hats are donned, dirt is dug or pipe is laid, Hall County government and the Georgia Department of Transportation will have already spent about $23.3 million just getting people out of the way.
Since April 2017, Hall County and its contractor, Moreland Altobelli, have been at work nailing down right of way for the road — the land along the sides of the two-lane road that’ll be needed to bump it to four lanes with a median.
In just the first phase of the widening project, the 3.1 miles that stretch from I-985 near Flowery Branch to Union Circle, there are 162 properties that need to be cleared out of the way in whole or part.
Front yards, driveways, homes, businesses — officials will need properties to be trimmed, adjusted or, in some cases, razed to clear the way for a project they say will make life easier for everyone in South Hall.
Public meetings for the project began in 2015, according to Hall County civil engineer Denise Farr, when residents got a first look at detailed maps showing the future of their property.
Securing that right of way is a complicated, often emotional process. Local and state government come knocking on doors, politely asking if they can bulldoze part or all of the home in which residents raised their children. If residents refuse, the government often does it anyway.
But people need to be made whole in the process and paid just compensation for their land used by the government.
Condemnations, or the process of seizing and using for the public purpose, can’t be done without a court hearing, appeals and, finally, a ruling and a payment to the property owner. Buyouts require appraisals and negotiations.
It’s a winding, expensive process. How can you be sure someone is getting a fair amount of cash for their home? What if they don’t want to sell right away? If they lawyer up, who does the negotiating?
This is where Moreland Altobelli comes in.
The engineering firm handles the right of way process basically from start to finish, according to Jeff Joyner, who heads up right of way acquisitions for the Duluth firm. Beyond a few public meetings in 2015 to collect input on the project, the team has been the lead on right of way for the Spout Springs Road project.
With the condemnation process in the works and public umbrage with the process surfacing in neighborhoods along the roadway, Joyner and Hall County staff walked through the right of way process with The Times.
Brace yourselves, because things are about to get a little dry.
Right of way purchasing, step by step
- An independent appraiser contacts the property owner.
- The appraiser inspects the property, sets the appraisal and sends it to the county and Georgia Department of Transportation, which certify the appraisal.
- Negotiations begin between the property owner and the firm handling the right of way process.
- Once a deal is reached, owners are paid the full value of their property for the right of way.
- If negotiations between a property owner and firm come to a halt, an independent negotiator will be brought in to look at a situation. Property owners are then sent a “10-day letter,” which offers the owner 10 business days to present a final counteroffer.
- If neither side comes to an agreement, the property owner is sent a “letter of regret” and the file is turned over for condemnation in Hall County Superior Court.
- An appeal of a superior court ruling can be filed by the property owner or the county in the Georgia Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court of Georgia.
At root, the pile of work to acquire right of way comes down to the lay of the land.
“It’s basically part of the design,” Kevin McInturff said. “First we design the new road, and in addition to having wider asphalt, turning lanes, a median for safety, it also has to have drainage structures, stormwater — and we want all of that infrastructure to be on the future right of way.”
This was laid out in the public’s first look at the project back in 2015, when property owners found out whether they would be affected. Shortly after the public meetings came property owner meetings, where the county explains the right of way process and the entitlements of property owners.
But the first real activity landowners see on right of way is a contact from the appraiser whose job is to find out what the county and state owe a property owner for his or her land, Joyner said.
Those appraisers are qualified by the Georgia Department of Transportation, which also has final approval of the road design and the amount of right of way required.
“Normal appraisers just sort of look at the whole property, which transportation appraisers do also but there’s another several levels they have to look at,” Joyner said. “We hire them — the county stays independent of that and so does Georgia DOT.”
Appraisals are complicated. A new road can require a piece of a property or the whole lot, and value needs to be determined accordingly. Sometimes, the project requires a structure be demolished but doesn’t require the entire lot, leaving a piece orphaned. In these cases, property owners often can choose to sell the entire lot.
In other cases, the slope of the road can render nearby property unusable or in worse condition because of drainage even though the county didn’t buy it for the right of way. These are damages, and they too carry a payment from the government.
If a home demolition is required, the government could be required to help fund moving expenses, Joyner said.
In any of these cases, the appraiser inspects the property, sets the appraisal and sends it to the county and Georgia DOT, which certify the appraisal.
Appraisal in the hand of the property owner, employees of Moreland Altobelli will sit down face-to-face with property owners usually in their own homes.
“That’s the point of initiation of negotiations,” Joyner said. “We make the monetary offer to them, we discuss the acquisition in detail. That’s the first real time that the property owner gets the full scope of the impact of the (project).”
Public meetings offer an overview, while this initial meeting gets into extreme detail on the owner’s lot. With so much information on the table, it’s “very seldom” that a buyout is handled with one meeting, Joyner said.
A “very general” outline of a good-faith attempt at negotiation is 30 days and three attempts, he said, but it’s rare that a purchase is wrapped up along those lines without more negotiations.
“Sometimes they want to move a driveway, make it a little bit larger. Can you save this tree, can you work around this sign? That kind of thing,” Joyner said.
And once a deal is reached, owners are paid the full value of their property for the right of way.
“If it’s worth $10 a square foot, they get $10 a square foot,” he said.
Easements are a separate category and don’t always require the property owner to give up his or her land. Depending on the impact of a project, owners could be paid a percentage of the value of their property depending on the type of easement — slopes for the road, utilities, drainage or other purposes.
Damages are also a separate calculation and are worked into the overall payment. If a road inches closer to someone’s home and decreases the value of the house by $30,000, that’s calculated as damage and added to the deal.
“That’s where the contentious part of the negotiations comes in a lot of times,” Joyner said, given the sensitivity in trying to determine the value in damage. “It’s debatable.”
But sometimes deals aren’t reached.
If negotiations between a property owner and Moreland Altobelli come to a halt, an independent negotiator will be brought in to look at a situation with fresh eyes. That’s the last contact from the firm, according to Joyner.
They’re then sent a “10-day letter,” which offers the owner 10 business days to present a final counteroffer. Alternatively, they can request an administrative appeal through the county (not the firm).
“That appeal goes to yet another independent person,” Joyner said. “This person is pretty well independent of any of the previous negotiations that were conducted with the property owner.”
That person gets the file — the history of negotiations, appraisal and plans — and starts fresh in an attempt to settle a sale.
If at the end of the day neither side comes to an agreement, the property owner is sent a “letter of regret” from Moreland Altobelli and the file is turned over for condemnation in Hall County Superior Court.
“After the condemnation is approved, in this case by the Hall County Board of Commissioners — the county attorney gets ready to file the actual petition of taking — they also deposit the original fair market value owner with the clerk of court,” Joyner said.
However, the condemnation proceeds “as any other civil action, with the property owner having the right to contest the authority to take the property or the price offered for the property, as the case may be,” County Attorney Bill Blalock said, meaning it can be appealed.
“An appeal from the decision of the Superior Court by either party would be filed with the Georgia Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court of Georgia, depending upon the nature of the appellate issues,” Blalock said.
In the total project, right of way accounts for more than 30 percent of the cost of the project, including Moreland Altobelli’s $2.55 million contract for both phases.
This process will repeat from start to finish 162 times before the shovel pierces the ground in the first phase of the Spout Springs Road widening project. It will repeat 93 times in the second phase of Spout Springs.