Piecemeal funding frustrates completion of Northern Beltway around Winston-Salem

by Jordan Green

Change is coming for commuters who pass through the northern and eastern parts of Forsyth County and for homeowners who live in the pathway of progress.

For the first group, it may not be soon enough to make a difference; for the second group, the process is agonizingly slow. The culprit is a state budget so short on dollars that projects must be undertaken incrementally.

When the Northern Beltway is completed, it is expected to stretch around three-quarters of Winston-Salem from a southwestern point at US Highway 158 near Clemmons to a southeastern point at US Highway 311. The entire project is estimated to cost $1.1 billion.

First up on the NC Department of Transportation’s construction schedule is a segment through Kernersville and Walkertown that will connect US Highway 421/Business 40 to US Highway 158 that is known as Project U-2579B. Eventually the beltway will connect to US Highway 52 near Rural Hall, and allow people traveling between Mount Airy and Greensboro to bypass Winston-Salem.

The department is in the midst of approaching property owners in the pathway of the first segment of the planned roadway, and plans to put the project out to bid for construction in October 2014.

Veronica Sherbourne, who bought her house in the Morris Farm subdivision in the Walkertown area about five years ago, has been bracing herself for a call from the department of transportation.

“Our properties are right in the zone,” she said. “When we looked at the map it showed our properties could be razed. You’re looking at 15 properties averaging $250,000. What I think they’ll do is instead of razing the property is put a highway within 12 feet of your doorstep. They’re just skuzzy enough to do that.”

The eastern section of the beltway, which includes Project U-2579B, has several purposes. The section is meant to improve mobility within North Carolina and between states, reduce traffic congestion, enhance safety and provide a corridor for the Interstate 74, which will eventually connect North Carolina to Davenport, Iowa. U-2579B received prioritization from the state based on a formula that includes both needs and benefits. The department looks at crash data, along with savings on travel times and economic development opportunities to make that decision.

Forsyth County Commissioner Walter Marshall said construction has been delayed repeatedly since the beltway project was proposed 10 or 15 years ago.

“Right now, I’m not really sure of the economic effect of it, it’s taking so long,” said Marshall, who serves on the transportation advisory committee of the Winston-Salem Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.

“The increase in automobile traffic around this area — it’s hard to build your way out of it,” Marshall added. “We can look at Atlanta and see that that’s not the real solution. We know it will have some effect, but it won’t solve the overall problem.”

Marshall said that while he supports construction of the Northern Beltway, he believes the real solution is to provide more public transportation alternatives to reduce the number of cars on the highway. To that end, he supports additional funding for the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation, which currently relies on rental vehicle taxes.

Dan Besse, a Winston-Salem City Council member who is also a member of the transportation advisory committee, said the eastern leg will relieve congestion on the deteriorating US Highway 52, especially at the interchange with US Highway 421/ Business 40. He also said the eastern leg aligns with regional planning to encourage nodal commercial development and a possibly a future commuter rail line between Winston-Salem and Kernersville.

Sherbourne was one of seven property owners who showed up to meet Stan Abrams, a Durham-based eminent domain lawyer, at an informational meeting held in the basement of the Winston-Salem Marriott last week.

“Here’s the thing,” Abrams said. “You’ve got two issues. You should get paid for what they’re actually taking. They should pay you for taking your front yard. They should also pay you for what it does to the rest of your property. That’s called “damage to remainder.” It’s going to diminish the value of your property.”

Sherbourne said she would prefer that the state buy up all of her property, but fears that instead she’ll wind up with a highway running through her yard.

“It’s almost like breaking your kneecaps,” she said. “What’s the difference between dealing with the DOT and dealing with the mafia?” Pat Ivey, the engineer for the regional division that includes Winston-Salem, explained the process used by the department of transportation to acquire properties.

“In short, we do get an appraisal for the property we plan to take, and we use that appraisal for the determination of fair market value,” he said. “We will compensate for the property we take, and possibly if there are any damages to the remaining section. It could be a lot of different things. Access could be one of those things. The ability to build on the property could be another.”

While property owners in the path of Project U-2579B face the daunting task of negotiating prices with the state in the next year or so, those who live in other areas of the future beltway confront something worse: uncertainty.

Matthew Bryant, a Winston-Salem lawyer, represents about 60 plaintiffs who are suing to try to get the state to buy their properties immediately. The state has established a protective corridor over the properties in the path of the beltway that restricts owners from making improvements.

“Every plaintiff is an owner in the protective corridor,” Bryant said. “They are asking the state to buy them, and we think 15-plus years is a gracious amount of time to wait on the state of North Carolina to do anything.”

The state has bought some properties and not others. The pattern appears to puzzle property owners and their lawyers. Krone Eudy, a BE Aerospace employee, had wanted to sell his house off of Oak Grove Road after his wife died of cancer. When the state announced the alignment of the Northern Beltway’s eastern leg in 2008, his property suddenly became unmarketable.

“I met someone else and I want to move on with my life,” said Eudy, who has a lawsuit against the state. “I have a VA loan that’s tied up in this home. I can’t buy another home until this one’s gone. The only buyer I have is the state of North Carolina. They want to wait until 2021 when they have enough money to build another road.

“North Carolina owns virtually 98 percent of what’s around here,” Eudy continued. “Now, there’s nothing but renters. The house across from me didn’t get his yard mowed for a month or two. There were newspapers lying all over.”

Ivey declined to comment on Eudy’s complaint, considering that the matter is under litigation.

“In 2008, the state put the road plan in,” Eudy said. “That killed us here. The house was on the market then, and that basically took it off the market. The longer they wait, the more rundown the neighborhood gets, and the less value my home has.”