08/19/09 — Officials work on how best to deal with highway corridor issues

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Officials work on how best to deal with highway corridor issues

By Steve Herring
Published in News on August 19, 2009 1:46 PM

Highway corridor protection has been on the minds of many Wayne County residents for the past several months, but here has been no clear understanding of how and if that can be accomplished.

The only option discussed so far is the zoning authority held by the county and the municipalities, an issue that often is not well received.

The Goldsboro Metropolitan Planning Organization agreed last week to a request from the county to provide a menu of options to safeguard the corridors -- particularly the one for Interstate 795 South and U.S. 117.

"I received a letter from the county manager (Lee Smith) requesting that the MPO look at what we can do to protect the future I-795 south corridor," MPO Chairman Chuck Allen said Thursday.

County Commissioner Jack Best, who represents the county on the MPO, asked that question of Transportation Secretary Gene Conti at an earlier meeting last week in Wilson.

"The secretary said that was a good question and that it was a question that needed to be answered all across the state," Best said. "I think we need to follow up with him to see what direction he wants the county to go and/or the MPO to go as far as recommendations, but we really will have to take his lead.

"It is up to the counties and municipalities, as I understand it, to designate those corridors."

State Highway Division 4 engineer Ricky Greene said it is possible that local governments will have to take a financial lead in protecting highway corridors as well.

"That could be the reality that we are facing," he said.

The I-795 corridor grabbed much of the attention during two recent public workshops on the MPO's long-range transportation plan.

Residents complained that the original selection was made with little to no public awareness. They also voiced concerns that the corridor designation had hurt their property values.

The public and elected officials alike have worried that people might buy property not knowing it is crossed by a highway corridor.

However, Nora McCann, a Department of Transportation representative, said that the "due diligence" required of Realtors mandates that they inform potential buyers of such information.

Jill Stark, a representative of the Federal Highway Administration, noted that while that was true, problems could still arise. She described a Wilmington project in which developers failed to disclose that the project lay in the path of a major projected highway.

In May, Mike Bruff, head of the Department of Transportation planning office, told the MPO that the state's Official Corridor Map Act allows the department to file an official map based on a corridor that has been selected through the National Environmental Policy Act.

The department must have a record of a decision on a selected corridor recorded in the local Register of Deeds office. The map is not filed until the environmental work is done, Bruff said.

If someone wants to develop property within the corridor, the state can refuse to allow the development for three years. At the end of three years, the transportation department would either have to purchase the right of way or allow the developer to proceed.

That timetable is not triggered until a developer asks to develop the property.

Complicating the corridor issue, Allen said, is that no one "has any clue" as to when the rest of I-795 will be built.

"I feel like as leaders we are charged with responsible planning," Allen said. "We are doing long-range planning through 2035 right now, which is 25 years out, and all of us sitting here and (Commissioner) Andy (Anderson) especially knows that it takes 25 years to get anything."

Anderson worked for years to help get U.S. 117 four-laned between Goldsboro and Wilson. The road has since been designated as I-795.

Anderson has noted that the county's population is growing and more houses are being built, which could complicate future road projects.

Allen added, "The best that we can do with all the information we can get is that we need to figure out what that the route is going to be and at least put it in the puzzle. I don't know any other way to do fairly and let everybody know. I think the only way you can do it is take a study and do it. I understand it affects property owners, but they have to understand it is a line on a map 20 years, 25, 35, 40 years out and it can change.

"I think you owe it to try and protect that corridor because if you don't, we are going to get into the same situation we have now that when we do look at property you can't afford it because of right-of-way cost."

Best suggested revisiting the route.

"The decision was made about six years ago, so we might want to review it to make sure the corridor that was chosen is still our number one choice," he said. "Maybe have (consultants) Kimley-Horn review it.

"Really and truly we need to look at those corridors and make sure we chose the right one. At that time it was. Today it might be different. We need to protect it and review it to make sure it is the one."

County Planning Director Connie Price, who is chairman of the MPO advisory staff, said he would set up conference calls with city, county, state and federal highway officials to talk about a potential list of things that could be done. He said he would report the findings, possibly as early as October.

Ms. Stark said that a program is being developed as a mapping tool that provides overlays showing all protected wildlife, historic property, natural resources and other considerations that come into play when a corridor is being considered.

It will save time and money on environmental documents since the number of sites can be quickly narrowed by looking at items that affect corridor selection, she said.

In a related issue, Greene said work is continuing to place directional signs on I-795 directing traffic to Goldsboro. The project should start within three months and the larger overhead signs should be in place by March, he said.