Road project takes a different turn

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David Minton/DRC
JJack and Betty Parkes pose in their backyard overlooking their property where the city of Denton plans to re-route South Bonnie Brae Street. The road is to be re-routed and widened to travel down the hill behind their home instead of in front.
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Jack and Betty Parkes had planned for years to sell most of their 37.5-acre property and use the proceeds to subsidize their retirement.

On the hillsides overlooking Hickory Creek and the historic Pilot Knob hill, the couple owns two houses and two barns with horse pastures good for grazing and riding.

When word came in 2010 that Bonnie Brae Street would be widened through their neighborhood, they prepared themselves for the possibility that the new road would divide their property. They planned to keep some of the western corner — about two acres that would include their house and one of the horse barns.

Beginning near the intersection with Highland Park Road, the city is expected to realign the road so that, by the time the road gets to the Parkes property at Roselawn Drive, Bonnie Brae would pass on the east side of their home instead of the west.

Jack Parkes said the couple doesn’t want to move from the house because it is comfortable and familiar, a quality that has become increasingly important to him as his eyesight fails. The couple had listed the remaining land for $1.1 million, but potential buyers have been heading the other way when they learn the property will be cut by the new road, Betty Parkes said.

“We’re in a deep freeze,” she said.

In April 2012, city staff and consulting engineers identified 67 parcels the city would likely need to widen Bonnie Brae from Interstate 35E to Vintage Boulevard, according to documents obtained through an open records request. As the plans were refined, the city determined it needed to negotiate 33 land deals in all, according to city engineer Frank Payne, who is supervising the project.

One year later, the city has closed five land deals, with a sixth expected shortly, spending about $662,000, according to city documents.

Expenditures were expected to eclipse the $1.4 million budgeted for the project’s right of way, Payne wrote in an e-mail this week. Additional funding is likely to come from the construction budget and possible reallocation from the city’s Transportation Improvement Program Modifications request forwarded to the Texas Department of Transportation, he said.

In 2010, Denton identified about $58 million of city, council and state money, including proceeds from the the sale of State Highway 121 to the North Texas Tollway Authority, to pay for widening Bonnie Brae from two lanes to four.

Negotiations with other landowners are at various stages, with 15 offers yet to be presented and authorized by the City Council, Payne said.

Two of the transactions — land owned by the University of North Texas and by the Meadows of Hickory Creek developer — are being dedicated. The city has closed on the land dedicated by the developer and UNT’s conveyances are in progress, Payne said.

The city’s negotiations with landowners can vary from a single payment for a piece of land to an offer for different land rights that meet different needs for the city, Payne said.

For example, sometimes the city only needs temporary access to the land for the construction work, but not the project itself. However, whether the use is temporary or permanent, the landowner is still entitled to payment.

Because negotiations stalled with three landowners, including the Parkeses, the city has begun eminent domain proceedings with the Parkeses, outgoing City Council member Chris Watts and the family of the late Zeke Martin, a former Denton mayor.

The Parkeses retained Dallas lawyer Kenneth Wright to help them with the process. The couple turned down Denton’s initial offer of $255,000 for more than nine acres of their 37.5-acre tract, Wright said.

This week, the city staff is expected to recommend to the City Council that they hire a law firm to represent the city’s interest in the eminent domain cases, according to the city’s real estate manager, Paul Williamson.

The city must file suit in order to move the eminent domain proceedings to a Denton court. Once the suit is filed, the judge will appoint a panel consisting of three “disinterested” landowners who will hear the cases and make a judgment, Williamson said. In other words, the court-appointed panel will determine the price the city pays for their land.

The city’s process to acquire land for public works projects is guided by state law. A new state law written to protect landowners in their deals with oil and gas pipeline companies has affected the city, too, Williamson said.

“It puts more time into the process and gives landowners time to build a case,” Williamson said.

Overall, the city was making positive progress in acquiring the land it needs for Bonnie Brae, given the complicated nature of the project, according to Payne.

At the same time the city is working to acquire land along Bonnie Brae, they are also working on acquiring land along Mayhill Road, for which the city has budgeted another $11.7 million.

“Depending on the direction that the land rights negotiations take, it could be at least another year or more on each project,” Payne said in an e-mail.

In addition, Denton Municipal Electric has begun acquiring the land it needs for a massive, $302 million upgrade and expansion of its system that will affect even more Denton landowners over the next several years.

The city staff has sought the authority to negotiate with landowners, but the City Council tabled the matter a month ago and ran out of time to discuss the matter again on March 19.

One Denton resident, Robert Donnelly, has come before the council twice, urging it to decline the staff’s request to delegate the authority because it could compromise protections afforded landowners through notices, hearings and other public processes.

Under the terms proposed, the city manager, or his designee, would have the authority to negotiate offers under $350,000 and work with counteroffers that stayed under certain thresholds.

Both Williamson and Payne said that they thought delegating such authority would help move along the city’s process of acquiring right of way.

For the Parkeses, the progress along Bonnie Brae has moved so slowly that they decided this month to list their entire property, Betty Parkes said.

Because they are older, they aren’t in a position to wait until the “road decides what it wants to do,” she said. “We may have to move to Robson Ranch, although it’s not what we want to do.”

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter @phwolfeDRC.



Expected offers to purchase: 31

Budget: $1,403,830

Transactions signed or closed: 6

Amount spent so far: $661,586

Transactions yet to be authorized: 15

Transactions in eminent domain: 3

SOURCE: City of Denton


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