By Pat Cooper
It has been the most controversial subject on county agendas for the past two years, but in one short vote, the Fayette County Board of Commissioners put a stop to the project that has raised residents’ tempers.
The board voted unanimously to finish the second phase of the bypass project, to drop the third phase from the county’s transportation plan and to change the planned roundabout at State Route 92 to a four way intersection.
Late last week, the commission chairman, the biggest opponent to the bypass construction for the past two years, sent a memo with his recommendations to other commissioners, saying, in his opinion, the county had reached a stage of construction on the second phase of the bypass that guaranteed its completion. In his memo, Steve Brown said the county was “shackled by a contract that had been approved by the former commission, in a 3-2 vote.”
Brown noted that the former board members had “achieved their objective of pushing Phase II of the bypass far enough along so that we are unable to prevent its completion,” adding he had witnessed the constant prodding on the T-SPLOST committee to accelerate the construction process.
“Undeniably, the contractor, E.R. Snell, has completed a majority of the work from Eastin Road to State Route 92. The contract calls for paving to finish in May. The contractor has to be paid in full or the county government is in breach of contract — we are locked into a binding agreement from the former majority on the Board of Commissioners. If we continue to halt the work, we lose a significant amount of taxpayer dollars with nothing to show for it,” Brown said.
But Brown said there are additional problems associated withthe construction.
“In addition, we are also experiencing erosion problems from the prepared road bed now in place,” he said. “And it will cost even more taxpayer dollars, beyond the binding agreement for road construction, to contain that damage if the road bed is not paved. We also have another contract where we are locked into a binding agreement from the former majority on the Board of Commissioners with contractor McCarthy Improvements related to the bridge at Whitewater Creek.”
But Brown stressed that construction cannot be halted.
“As with the other contractor, the work is in progress and terminating the project would result in a breach of contract, meaning the taxpayers would pay for the total project without the work being performed,” he said.
More upsetting to Brown was that the county was still in the midst of condemnation proceedings with about 10 property owners along the route when construction began.
“I consider this careless methodology to be both inappropriate and unconscionable, opening the county up to considerable risk by not knowing the actual costs of land acquisitions and possible court-imposed damages,”he said.
The southern section of Phase II (everything south of Eastin Road which accounts for 50 percent of the length of the entire project) was completed last year.
The section from Eastin Road to State Route 92 was substantially complete at the beginning of the year.
The one upside to the vote, as far as the board was concerned, was the fact that the roundabout project at State Route 92 was still in the design phase and the board was able to find something he called “less expensive and less harmful design on the homes and businesses in the area.”
The original roundabout plan was slated to cost the county $1.7 million, The alternate plan, costing less also avoids moving major utility junctions.
“In looking for the best solution possible under the constrained circumstances, that to avoid a lawsuit based on breach of contract related to binding agreements passed by the majority on the previous Board of Commissioners and to avoid paying the cost of resolving continued environmental damages from leaving the currently formed road bed unpaved, allow the completion of Phase II up to State Route 92,” Brown said.
Brown also moved to use a reconfigured plot for the roundabout, turning it into a four-way intersection and to officially terminate the planned Phase III and remove it totally from the county’s transportation plan.
Lees Mill Road resident Ginga Smithfield, who had also been a vocal opponent of the bypass and had lost sections of her family’s property to the project, came forward to thank the board for their ongoing opposition to the bypass and for trying to help the homeowners in the neighborhood.
“I urge you to abolish Phase III,” she said. “There is a huge working farm along Phase III that could be spared and maybe the homeowners along Phase III will be spared what the homeowners along Phase II were not spared.”
Local environmentalist Dennis Chase still had some questions regarding the project in connection with the stormwater management.
“I want to know if the stormwater utility department had ever reviewed the best management practices to be installed when they built the West Fayetteville Bypass,” he said. “This is one million square feet of impervious and I have no idea if there are adequate provisions along side the road to protect the stormwater run off. I think this is an outstanding issue.”
Chase said he had already raised the question several times and had not yet received an answer.
Commissioner Chuck Oddo said that, when he was campaigning, he said he would assess the project.
“After looking at it, it would be, to my way of thinking as a businessman, this would be a terrible waste of the taxpayers money if we just stopped it,” he said.
Brown also added that part of the problem to stopping the project is that “a portion is left in a clearing and a substantial amount of road material has been left there. If you leave that, it will eventually have to be cleaned up. It’s a Catch 22. I don’t take any joy in this decision. I’ve been opposed to this for 10 years, but we have to finish it. We have no choice. I’m sad to say we condemned this property through a special means and started building on it before we knew what the court-imposed penalties were or the land prices were going to be. That is not the way we’re supposed to do it. We could have done something that cost less.”
“Finally, I conclude this motion with an official apology from the county government to the landowners and taxpayers of Fayette County for the local government not being receptive on the issue of the West Fayetteville Bypass project and the county’s forcing the construction of Phase II, even before a substantial amount of the land was purchased just to handcuff the current Board of Commissioners to the completion of the phase because of the binding contracts of their predecessors,” Brown said. “May we never see such thoughtlessness in this county ever again.”