NEW ALBANY — The city abandoning its plans for additional traffic studies and going ahead with turning Mount Tabor Road and Klerner Lane into a signalized intersection may be an option for New Albany as a resident asks for land back that was taken for the stalled project.
“If they’re going to continue to take the right of way back so then we’d have to come and repurchase again, which is a cumbersome option to begin with, I would just hate to do all that over,” said City Engineer Larry Summers after a Floyd County Circuit Court hearing regarding the resident’s legal motion.
New Albany’s attorney in its Mount Tabor Road eminent domain cases, Greg Fifer, is recommending that the city takes that route. Ultimately, the decision would be up to Mayor Jeff Gahan and the New Albany Board of Public Works and Safety, Fifer said, but he believes nothing is stopping the city from doing so.
Nothing, maybe, but public opinion.
The city originally halted plans for a signal and turn lane at the four-way stop of Mount Tabor Road and Klerner Lane when residents took issue with traffic studies the city used to justify the project. Dissenters said traffic counts were taken at a time when closures forced vehicles to be rerouted onto the street. The Indiana Department of Transportation also found that the city’s plans, filed to be in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, failed to show that the intersection would no longer be a four-way stop.
Two weeks after an additional January public information meeting requested by INDOT during which residents peppered Gahan with questions about the project, Summers told the News and Tribune that the city would be conducting additional traffic studies at the intersection before committing to any updates. The studies aren’t expected to be conducted until next summer and construction wouldn’t start for the next couple of years.
In the meantime, road work begins on Phase One of the Mount Tabor Road project this month, which extends from Grant Line Road to a spot approximately 200 feet before the Klerner Lane intersection and includes the stabilization and widening of the road, drainage improvements and the construction of gutters and sidewalks.
In January, Scott Whalen, the resident asking for his land back from the city, praised New Albany’s reversal on the intersection portion of the project in an email to the News and Tribune, calling it “great news.”
But as Whalen has negotiated with the city over compensation for the portion of his yard they’ve taken for their road project, it’s been difficult for his attorney Justin Endres to do his job.
“Normally through the discovery process, you will be able to see plans to see what is going to be built and how it may affect what’s going on in the surrounding area, and there aren’t plans,” he said.
Endres is arguing that because the city no longer has formalized plans for the Klerner Lane intersection, it doesn't have the right to keep Whalen’s land.
He expects Floyd County Circuit Court Judge Terrence Cody to make a decision on Whalen’s motion in the next couple of weeks.
In emails included in court documents from Endres, New Albany Public Facilities Specialist Jessica Campbell told Whalen that there were no plans, funding source, scope or schedule for the intersection phase of the Mount Tabor Road project, which also extends past Klerner Lane to Charlestown Road.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Summer said that funds would probably come from a nearby Tax Increment Finance District, but that money has not been officially dedicated yet.
When a municipality takes a resident’s land, it must give a public use reason for doing so, according to law cited in Whalen’s motion, but Endres couldn’t name legal precedent for what happens when a city like New Albany changes its plans after taking land.
“Typically the project doesn’t change like this,” he said.
In Fifer’s filed response to Whalen’s motion, he argues that the City of New Albany remains “fully committed” to the Mount Tabor Road project. The court documents also say that residents are allowed to get their land back that is taken by the city for temporary right of way only if the project doesn’t materialize for six years.
At the hearing, Fifer argued that the land the city took for the intersection project is also needed for utility work that will occur during Phase One.
Endres noted that utilities weren’t mentioned in the city’s original reason for taking Whalen’s land.
“That’s an argument to try and save an otherwise inappropriate taking,” he said.
Several Mount Tabor residents attended the hearing, including Kelly Feiock, who said she hoped that the judge’s decision will set a favorable precedent for her case and her neighbors.
Fifer said he is still working with three homeowners who are challenging the city’s compensation for their land, one of whom is Feiock. Around four other cases with other homeowners are virtually settled, but not official, he said. Court records show at least 10 that are still pending.