"We're not giving up. Please don't give up! We can stop [the I-69 extension] yet if we all work together."
So said Tom Tokarski, president of Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads (CARR), at a public meeting on April 25 at the Indian Creek Township Fire Station in Bloomington.
CARR and the Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC) called the meeting to make presentations about landowners' rights under eminent domain and answer questions from landowners. Those are the people confronted with the condemnation and forced sale of their property in the path of the highway by the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) in southwest Monroe County and Greene County.
"You can't be deprived of your property without due process of law." - Keith Guthrie, attorney
The first speaker, Keith Guthrie, an Elizabethtown attorney, tackled the question of landowners' legal rights. As Guthrie put it, the purpose of his part of the meeting was to "start the process of getting a handle on the complex information you need to feel comfortable with as [the highway] starts in your direction."
Guthrie's starting point was the fact the U.S. and Indiana constitutions guarantee "that you can't be deprived of your property without due process of law." Early on, landowners have to determine whether they'll need a lawyer to help them through the process.
First, INDOT has to establish that it has the right to take the owner's property. Next, the landowner can contest the claim if she or he can present a legitimate argument that INDOT doesn't need the property to construct the highway.
It's landowners' statutory right to receive a price, appraisal and good-faith negotiations from INDOT, but INDOT doesn't always follow those procedures, according to Guthrie. Landowners have "very limited substantive procedural rights in the process."
A landowner has 30 days in which to respond to INDOT's offer to buy the property. At this point the condemnation and taking of the property is inevitable unless the landowner can prove that INDOT doesn't need the property for the highway. For the landowner, "winning" isn't preventing INDOT from acquiring the property but only obtaining a better price than INDOT originally offered.
Landowners have the right to negotiate with INDOT about the sale price of the properties, but once they sign contracts with INDOT for the sale of the property, they can't challenge the price. Guthrie stressed that INDOT doesn't have the right to take the property until the landowner signs a sale contract with the agency.
HEC's Senior Policy Director Tim Maloney said that in HEC's opinion there's a lot of work that can be done to prevent the highway from coming through sections 3-6. (Section 4 is from Crane to Bloomington, section 5 from Bloomington to Martinsville and section 6 from Martinsville to Indianapolis.) The highway isn't a "done deal," as the state and INDOT want the public to believe, Maloney said.
"The diversion of one-half billion dollars from other projects around the state is not going to happen." - Tim Maloney, HEC
Since the state doesn't have money to complete the highway, it would have to divert funds from other road projects around the state, according to Maloney. "The diversion of one-half billion dollars from other projects around the state is not going to happen," he assured the audience. That's reason No. 1 why the highway isn't a done deal.
Reason No. 2 is that there's much work to do on environmental studying and permitting. Whereas section 4 is now at the draft permitting and public comment stage, the environmental documents for sections 5 and 6 are far from complete. HEC hasn't seen plans for sections 5 and 6 and "doesn't see any evidence," Maloney asserted, "that the state is going to produce them in the near future."
HEC, he went on to say, is watching the process closely, commenting, requesting hearings and considering legal challenges.
As for reason No. 3, the highway is controversial, as shown by the turnout of about 100 people. In one area the local elected officials have come out unanimously against the highway.
HEC has been "pursuing this issue very vigorously" for two decades, Maloney said. He urged people to "make their voices known," especially to Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.).
Steve Meyer, an attorney and HEC's land use policy coordinator, pointed out that the first three sections of the highway will cost about $220 million, to be paid for by federal and state gas tax. The cost from Crane to Bloomington is estimated at $500-800 million.
Tokarski wrapped up the meeting with a call to action. Money, he said is "absolutely crucial at this stage" of the highway construction.
"You simply cannot trust INDOT." - Tom Tokarski, CARR
The greatest influence highway opponents can have is political, pressuring state and federal congresspeople. He counseled that every time one talks to a senator or representative, one should ask why Indiana is spending all this money on a highway when it's cutting funds for education.
Also point out, he said, that spending that money means paving over some of the state's most valuable farmland and cutting down some of the state's last remaining tracts of forest.
Tokarski asserted that there is "no state or federal mandate to build any one of those sections. ... In order to avoid considering the total cost of the highway, the state," he said, set up the sections separately, and he thinks "we can use it against them now."
What's more, Tokarski said, "[INDOT] can significantly change the design of the highway after environmental studies are done. The agency is doing that now with sections 1-3." They make promises there's no guarantee they'll keep -- "putting overpasses here and bridges there." It's "nonsense," he said. They're cutting costs everywhere. "You simply cannot trust INDOT, and we have learned that over the years," he said.
Tokarski stressed the importance of the public's presence at an upcoming Bloomington-Monroe County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) meeting at which INDOT will request that the MPO place I-69 in its Transportation Improvement Program. If the highway isn't in the program, INDOT can't use federal funds to build the highway; "they'd have to build it only with state gas tax money," Tokarski said, and "that's impossible."
As Tokarski stressed, MPO members are going to need the public's enthusiastic support at the MPO meeting. "Last time INDOT asked the MPO to endorse I-69, [it] turned them down," he said. INDOT has used extortion to get its way, hinting that the agency would defund other local road projects if the MPO didn't comply with its wishes.
Tokarski encouraged the attendees at Wednesday's meeting to sign up on CARR's e-mail list to receive a notice of the MPO meeting when the date is confirmed.
Linda Greene can be reached at email@example.com.