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Roundabout cost skyrockets

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MT. COMFORT — Hancock County must pay big bucks to buy land for a new roundabout on Mt. Comfort Road, court-appointed appraisers have decided.

Appraisals for three pieces of land at CRs 600W and 300N came in more than $750,000 higher than county officials expected in an eminent domain process. At least one county commissioner says the higher land-acquisition cost should give the commissioners pause.

The roundabout, discussed for several years, has been controversial among county officials and landowners alike. While Hancock County has a federal grant to improve the intersection, stakeholders have been at odds over what kind of improvements should be made.

Last year, Hancock County Commissioners Tom Stevens and Derek Towle voted to make the intersection a multilane roundabout, while Commissioner Brad Armstrong argued it should be a traditional intersection with traffic lights.

Now that the cost for the project is escalating, Armstrong is renewing his push.

“For the project to go forward, we’d have to pay the higher amount now,” Armstrong said. “So that’s really stalled the project. (The Hancock County Highway Department) simply doesn’t have the money to do that.”

The federal grant cannot be used to acquire right-of-way. The local highway department must foot that bill. Funds from the tax increment finance district will pay for $1.5 million of right-of-way acquisition, but the new appraisals mean costs will exceed that earmark. Money that could be used for roadwork throughout the county would go toward buying land.

County officials took consideration of three pieces of land at the intersection to Hancock County Superior Court 1. Previously, the county highway department had two appraisers value the three pieces of land at a total of $1.19 million, but the landowners thought that was too low and refused the county’s offer for the land.

The county then took the land to court through eminent domain. Judge Terry Snow appointed three separate appraisers to re-evaluate the value of the land. They came back with a combined value of more than $1.9 million.

Hancock County Commissioners balked at those numbers and are appealing the decision. Joe Copeland, engineer for the county’s highway department, said next all parties must go through arbitration to come to a decision on how much the land is worth. If a decision can’t be reached, the cases will have to go to a jury trial.

But Armstrong says the numbers suggest it’s time to re-evaluate the intersection entirely.

Armstrong wants United Consulting, the engineering firm that has drawn up plans for the intersection, to reconfigure costs for a traditional intersection. While the work would cost an additional $5,000, Armstrong said it might be worth it if overall project costs for a scaled-back, traditional intersection are lower.

“My hope is that United comes back and says it’s going to be significantly cheaper,” Armstrong said. “If one of my colleagues agrees and we could design this thing cheaper and get it done, we could move on down the road.”

Neither Stevens nor Towle could be reached for comment Thursday. Both have said in previous meetings that they favor a roundabout over a traditional intersection because it would improve traffic flow and safety.

But Armstrong is not the only one concerned about the escalating costs of the project. Last month, Hancock County councilmen John Jessup, Jim Shelby and Brian Kirkwood voted against a plan to financially back the project. They said the county highway department’s money would be better spent elsewhere, such as fixing aging roads in the county.

That nearly brought project to a screeching halt, but the majority of the council voted in favor of moving it forward.

Some say because so much money has already been spent on the roundabout, it makes sense to keep the momentum going.

“You’ve got to think about how much we have invested,” Copeland said.

Money has already been spent on right-of-way elsewhere. The county agreed to pay the owner on the southwest corner, Duane Bullock, $275,000 for his property. Copeland said an additional $73,000 has been paid to three other property owners with smaller parcels near the intersection.

But Armstrong points to plenty of constituents who have never been in favor of the roundabout project, including school officials and volunteer firefighters. Besides, Armstrong added, if the project was made into a traditional multilane intersection, perhaps the El Nopal restaurant on the northwest corner of the intersection wouldn’t have to be moved.

Armstrong will ask the other commissioners Tuesday whether they would approve the additional $5,000 for United Consulting work. United did a cost comparison in March of 2011, and the estimated construction costs of the roundabout was actually $500 less than that for a traditional intersection with signals.

Construction costs are estimated at around $2.5 million.

Still, Armstrong said it’s worth looking at again, especially because land costs in United’s estimates last year were way off from the appraisals.

“If it comes back and they say it’s only going to save $150,000, then I’m never going to talk (the other commissioners) into it,” Armstrong said. “If it comes back and it saves $500,000 to $1 million, I think I can make a pretty strong argument that we need to change the design of the intersection to save money.”

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