Landowners along the path of the Interstate 35E expansion project are breathing a cautious sigh of relief after learning TxDOT’s plans for purchasing rights of way.
With the approval of the proposal to widen I-35E, Texas Department of Transportation officials have made it known they will expand the often-congested highway within the boundaries of their existing rights of way as much as possible, saving scores of businesses and residences from being pushed out at one time.
“As a merchant that lies in the path of that, I am very glad because I don’t want to lose my business,” said Brian Robertson, owner of Comet Cleaners in Denton. “Since they haven’t been upfront at all and never talked to me and told us what to expect, we’re all expecting impending doom.”
Robertson said he is “anti-eminent domain when it comes to them yanking people’s lives out from under them without negotiating a win-win situation.”
While Robertson said TxDOT had not reached out to him to let him know of any expansion plans that could impact his business, the agency has been acquiring property in recent months — including at least 35 parcels in 2011, according to county documents.
Realizing landowners’ concerns, Commissioner Andy Eads said, he and Commissioner Bobbie Mitchell lobbied for TxDOT officials to hold a public meeting later this spring to let people know what can and will happen to their property — and most importantly, when.
“It’s important for people to know a time frame so they can plan their businesses accordingly,” Eads said. “We expressed the desire to have this publicly communicated to the residents — what their time frame is and who will be impacted first.”
The expansion plan for the highway calls for it to be done in two phases. Not all of the right of way needs to be obtained right now, only certain segments. TxDOT officials will plan accordingly within budget constraints, including new state and federal funds, to determine how they will proceed with future land purchases, Eads said.
One of the most expensive pieces of land already acquired — a 1.75-acre tract — was obtained for more than $5.9 million from IH-35 & 2143 Property Acquisitions LP. The most property from a single seller was five parcels for a total of 3.84 acres purchased from Hickory Creek IH-35 Acquisitions LP.
Cynthia Northrop White, spokeswoman for TxDOT, said the agency has purchased 48 parcels for rights of way, spending $58.3 million.
With concessions made to the I-35E expansion plan to alleviate the concerns of Denton city officials, TxDOT will have to purchase an estimated $23 million in right-of-way properties near Loop 288.
“Right of way for the pedestrian bridge, which has already been let, has been acquired,” White said. “If funds are available, we would also need ROW [right of way] for the Avenue D/North Texas Boulevard interchange.”
Denton County Judge Mary Horn benefited during TxDOT’s 2011 land buying spree when the agency purchased a little less than an acre of her land in Hickory Creek along I-35E.
The land was purchased in 1994 for $62,500 when Jim Horn was a state representative and Mary Horn was the county tax assessor. It was appraised by the county this year for $72,442 and sold to TxDOT for almost $1 million.
Mary Horn said there are no conflicts in the ownership and sale of the property relating to the expansion of I-35E — a project she lobbied strongly for.
“We got letters from TxDOT a long time ago saying they were going to start securing right of way on I-35[E] from parties willing to enter into an agreement with [them]. They made a reasonable offer,” Horn said.
She said the sale price was significantly greater than the appraised amount because the land is so close to Lewisville Lake and there isn’t a lot of lakefront property available.
Horn said there are a couple of structures on the property that she expects will get flattened once west-side expansion begins.
“We used it a lot when our kids were in school. We had a boat and water-skied a lot,” she said. “We bought it and we were originally thinking of building down there, but the city of Hickory Creek had it zoned commercial and we couldn’t build.”
Denton County deputy appraiser Rudy Durham said the difference in price for the land purchased by TxDOT comes down to the classification of the land. The appraisal district may classify a piece of land along the corridor as residential, whereas TxDOT appraisers view it as commercial, which is more expensive.
In addition to residents and business owners, TxDOT officials have met with University of North Texas officials about the expansion of I-35E and how it may or may not impact the school.
Raynard Kearbey, interim vice chancellor for administrative services, said UNT officials met with TxDOT in the last couple of months. TxDOT talked about how its plans were dependent on when it could secure funding, Kearbey said.
Kearbey said the university hasn’t signed over any right-of-way property.
“We have not been approached about any easements,” Kearbey said.
He said he didn’t know how TxDOT could begin the project by 2013 without acquiring more property.
UNT’s biggest concern is for the Murchison Performing Arts Center because the expansion will move the highway closer to the building.
“What that means is the noise will get closer to the building,” he said.
The university has asked TxDOT to build a retaining wall to deflect the noise.
Construction has begun on the pedestrian bridge, which will cross I-35E from the main campus to Apogee Stadium. And because it will already be in place, getting to the stadium should not be affected by expansion construction, Kearbey said.
The expansion also won’t interfere with UNT’s other projects, such as a planned hotel and convention center, because the university knew ahead of time about the expansion and has planned accordingly, he said.
Staff writer Rachel Mehlhaff contributed to this report.
BJ LEWIS can be reached at 940-566-6875. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here is a list of the top 10 right-of-way purchases made in 2011 by TxDOT for the expansion of Interstate 35E, according to documents filed with the Denton County clerk’s office.
1. IH-35 & 2143 Property Acquisitions LP
2. Royal Partnership
3. Crown Lodging Ltd.
4. Sai Hospitality Inc. & Super 8 Motel
5. Triple Net Powersports LP
6. Peregrine Development LLC
7. IH-35 & Garden Ridge Acquisitions LP
8. Santa Fe Realty Corp.
9. Hickory Creek IH-35 Acquisitions LP
10. Dark Horse Productions Inc.