Residents and business owners affected by the planned widening of U.S. 221 between Deep Gap and Jefferson gathered at the Ashe County Courthouse Monday to learn about options if their property could potentially be acquired by the state through eminent domain.
Attorneys Ben Hurley of West Jefferson, Robert Angle of Boone and Anne Duvoisin of Raleigh answered questions and offered legal information.
The purpose of the meeting was to shed light on what homeowners could expect during the right-of-way acquisition process and what legal options they could pursue, said Duvoisin.
State transportation officials must acquire the right-of-ways for pieces of property impacted by the project before commencing construction.
The U.S. 221 project will widen 16.1 miles of two-lane highway to four lanes between Deep Gap and Jefferson. State transportation officials said the project would be implemented in five stages and will be completed sometime after Jan. 1, 2030.
According to the DOT, the widening will displace 70 homes and 33 businesses by condemning these properties in order to gain right-of-ways to make room for the project.
The process of eminent domain, according to U.S. Legal, is when a government entity takes a private land for public use. In this case, the public use is U.S. 221. Hundreds of parcels will also be partially taken, said Duvoisin.
An additional unknown number of properties will be affected through what is known as inverse condemnation.
Duvoisin said this happens when property is unintentionally affected by the construction and implementation of the project. Examples of this may include unseen noise pollution in a neighborhood from a new airport, adjacent rock blasting that damages a residence’s foundation or accidental flooding.
Some of those affected homeowners and tenants came to the meeting to hear what their rights were and how to move forward if they will be forced to relocate.
Now that the DOT has completed the project’s long-range planning and the design phase, the department is now on the verge of acquiring right-of-ways, said Duvoisin.
During the early phases of the right-of-way acquisition, an agent will make an appraisal on a piece of property, said Duvoisin.
The goal of any appraisal done by the state is to value the property at its “highest and best use,” said Duvoisin.
“The state doesn’t have the ultimate say on what the value of the property is, but a jury of your peers does,” said Duvoisin. “While the state has a duty to the land owners, it also has a greater duty to the public at large (and) the taxpayers to get the property at the cheapest value.”
DOT officials have stated they hope begin acquiring the right-of-ways for the first two segments of the project in the Deep Gap and Fleetwood communities in July.
Subsequent acquisitions of property would recommence in Sept. 2013 and July 2014.
Construction of the highway widening will take place sometime after all acquisitions are completed although DOT plans indicate the first segment of the project, which is in Deep Gap, will be completed in July 2015.
The attorneys also covered the ins and outs of what relocation assistance is required by the state if right-of-ways are acquired.
Duvoisin said the goal of relocation assistance is to provide decent, safe and sanitary housing for displaced tenants and landowners. In some instances, relocation assistance may include purchase and rent supplements or even a down payment for a new home, although each case would vary.
Should you hire an attorney?
Although the facilitating attorneys could not advise if the homeowners should seek legal assistance in any phase of the acquisition process, they did provide examples of why people do in these circumstances.
As one example, Duvoisin said lawyers often know of “good appraisers” who can provide land valuations on the public’s behalf. Duvoisin said that multiple appraisers might get involved in an eminent domain case.
Lawyers might also provide advice on other types of relief, such as what happens if breach of contract occurs or inverse condemnation.
Attorneys could also prevent landowners from making unintended admissions of property value, which could reduce compensation, said Duvoisin.
Duvoisin said the process of land acquisition becomes final once the DOT files a condemnation complaint in the county’s clerk office and deposits the amount of money it considers just compensation.
The DOT must also notify the property owner once the deposit is made. The DOT, however, does not have the right to personal property.
Update on project status
Prior to delving into the legal matters of the meeting, the attending attorneys also provided an update on the project’s status.
Duvoisin said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is now involved in the project due to a petition by the DOT to dredge waterways near the highway.
“This could affect 193 streams and 145 wetlands,” said Duvoisin.
There is also a petition to move Old Fields Creek as a result of the project.
In addition, Duvoisin said when she looked at the maps, she noticed a good portion of the project is an area known as the “100-year-old flood plain.”
In December, the DOT held a public information and input forum at Ashe County High where the project’s design was formally presented. Notes of that meeting and any potential design changes have not been made available.