ALDOT Pulling a Shell Game, Lawsuit Claims

Sandhill cranes, an endangered species, at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge

Not so fast with that switcheroo, says a suit filed by some of the largest agricultural landowners in north Alabama against the Alabama Department of Transportation.

A highway plan fashioned for a mixed-use development anchored by a Bass Pro Shop has been resurrected and retooled as a limited access highway cutting into farmland and a wildlife preserve that includes one of the best bass fishing lakes in Alabama, as well as a bird sanctuary visited by sandhill cranes.

What would have become the fourth Bass Pro Shop in the state never came to pass, nor the 540-acre development, called Sweetwater, planned north of Decatur on the south side of state Highway 20 at Interstate 65/565. But the highway plans have continued, in altered form and without public hearings and environmental studies required by law, say plaintiffs in a suit filed February 8 in U.S. District Court of North Alabama.

The complaint was filed by attorneys for Bradley Arant on behalf of plaintiffs who are three groups of large landowners: the trustees of the James H. Garrett Trust, the Elizabeth Marie Garrett Trust, and partners in the Fennel-Noble Family Limited Partnership. Much of their land, surrounding the highway project, is farmland, and they claim some of their land will be taken in the road building and much else will be cut off from access.

The original, 2014 plan was excepted from environmental and human impact studies under a “categorical exclusion” specific to that project, plaintiffs say. Continuation with the project in altered form, which began in 2018, is not allowed without such studies, they say. An environmental impact study is especially called for, they add, owing to the project’s immediate impact on the adjacent Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.

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Plaintiffs ask for a declaratory judgment halting further action by the highway department and call for impact studies they say are required by federal law.

They claim the current highway plans would create a limited access highway inviting a strip zone of unrestricted development that would reduce land values and negatively impact many new industrial developments in the area, including the Mazda Toyota plant under construction and projects completed in recent years, including Bocar, Polaris, GE Aerospace, Facebook, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Blue Origin.

Plaintiffs say the highway department is deliberately breaking up their long-range plans into a segment of a grander scheme — a process called “segmentation” and a specific violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

They claim the City of Decatur worked closely with the Department of Transportation on the revised, 2018 plan and that one of the aims of the project is to construct a new overpass bridge and interchanges on Highway 20 in the City of Decatur.

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