The process of expanding U.S. 221 is starting to pick up speed, following a presentation from Trent Beaver, Division 11 construction engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation, to the Ashe County Board of Commissioners.
“We want the public to have the latest and most accurate information,” Beaver said as he started off his presentation.
The project will cover 16.1 miles of U.S. 221 in Watauga and Ashe Counties and has been divided into five different sections. At the U.S. 221 and 421 interchange, the state is planning on removing the red light and placing an overpass at the intersection.
“We pushed for an interchange at that location for safety reasons,” Beaver said. “Everybody knows about the fog at that location.”
Beaver said after the meeting there should be no problem in construction the interchange, despite the proximity of the Blue Ridge Parkway interchange with U.S. 421
Section A will run from the U.S. 421 intersection in Watauga County to Idlewild Road and construction is supposed to start in June 2015. Section B will start from Idlewild Road to the New River and also has a tentative construction date of June 2015.
Section C will run from the New River to N.C. 194 and construction is supposed to start in 2017. Section D will run from N.C. 194 to N.C. 163 and its construction will begin in April 2015. Section E, running from N.C. 163 to Jefferson does not yet have a set start date.
Beaver said Section D will be the first section built and most right-of-way acquisitions have been completed in that section.
“We already have a wide swath of controlled access right of way,” Beaver said. “We need very little additional right of way easements.”
The road will be four lanes with a 23-foot median.
“That’s a minimum width median we can establish at this date and time,” Beaver said. “We will minimize the (environmental) footprint of the project.”
Changes by the N.C. General Assembly, now require transportation projects to be prioritized. Beaver said sections A, B and D are already locked in, because the dates for starting construction are set before July of 2015.
Still, he is confident section C will be a high priority, because the section will be connected to the other parts of construction.
Right of Way
Right of way negotiations with property owners along 221 have started, according to Beaver.
“We’re making initial contacts (with the property owners),” he said. “It is as far as we have gotten right now.”
The initial contact involves talking directly to the landowners to discuss why the DOT needs their property and how the process of acquiring the land works.
“That means our right of way agents are going out and making individual contact with each of these owners who either will have part of their parcel or maybe all of their parcel involved in some kind of acquisition,” said Jordan-Ashley Baker, communications officer for the N.C. DOT.
Baker said according to an environmental impact study done in 2012 by the DOT, there were going to be 103 relocations along U.S. 221. That would be 70 residential relocations and 33 business releocations.
“The 103 relocations is a good estimate, but it is just an estimate at this point,” Baker said.
After meeting with the property owners, they can then choose to have an independent and impartial appraisal of their property, she said.
“The property owner is encouraged to be present during the inspection,” Baker said. “When the appraisal is complete, the inspector will make a complete review of all of the elements affecting the property value and make an accurate estimate of what that value is.”
In addition, the N.C. DOT takes into consideration several factors, including how much of the property is acquired, its location and additional structures. Baker said the N.C. DOT has a $10 million budget for right-of-way purchases on U.S. 221.
“We will sit down and talk with the property owner and hopefully reach a settlement that will move forward the acquisition process,” Baker said.
If an owner refuses to have their property acquired by the DOT, the state will then consider using state eminent domain to acquire the land.
“Unfortunately, we’re not always able to reach an amicable agreement with the property owner and acquire their property through negotiated settlements,” Baker said. “Then it moves toward eminent domain, which is acquisition of the property controlled through the legal system.”
If households and businesses have to be relocated, the state will provide moving funds, and when applicable, replacement housing payments determined by state and local regulations. Baker said each property is looked at on a case-by-case basis.
“Every situation is unique and every property is unique,” she said. “We always try to take that into consideration with our property owners.”
Wil Petty can be reached at (336) 846-7164 or on Twitter @WilPetty.