RIPPON — Several homeowners here fear they may be thrown into bankruptcy by plans by the Division of Highways that would require seizing their homes to make way for a new bypass on U.S. 340.
Those plans to run a four-lane highway through their land were made public in 2003 – two years before their subdivision was approved by the county Planning Commission.
The plans for a bypass were never disclosed to them when they were buying their homes, they say.
The DOH presented its proposal at a public hearing on Monday, where it displayed three maps showing possible routes for the bypass.
Residents said they had not been notified of the meeting by the DOH, and had only found out that it would take place when county resident John Maxey visited their neighborhood to inform them.
At the meeting, officials showed eight other alternative routes that had been abandoned in 2003 because of their impact on nearby historic resources. They say construction of the bypass will likely begin late next year. Residents say the three remaining plans would “decimate” their neighborhood, the Ryan’s Glen subdivision.
“One of the plans actually destroys six houses, and three of those houses were completed in the last year,” Cheryl McConnell said. “For those folks this is even more traumatic because they just moved in.”
The situation is made worse, said resident Michael Brust, because West Virginia law allows mortgage companies to sue homeowners whose property is seized if they owe more than the fair maket value of their home.
“West Virginia is one of the few states in the nation where if they give us ‘fair market value’ – which is less than our home value – the mortgage companies can still come after us for the balance,” Brust said. “There’s the potential that they would take hard-working people … and put them in an untenable position and put them in, basically, a position of bankruptcy. We would be kicked out of our home. They would give us ‘fair market value’ and we would still owe the bank money but yet still need to find another place to live.”
Brad Grubb, together his wife and with their three children, moved into a house in Ryan’s Glen only three months ago and are now facing the prospect of losing it.
“The road cuts clear through our house – our actual house, not just the lot – and through a couple of our neighbors’ houses as well,” Grubb said. “It’s a complete shock. How can they do this?”
“They still have things in boxes, and they are going to be kicked out of their house? That’s crazy,” said Michael Kingsberry, a former president of the Ryan’s Glen Home Owners Association.
“We’ll take a hit. That’s for sure because the housing market has been tanking,” Grubb said, adding that many Ryan’s Glen residents purchased their homes at the peak of the housing bubble, meaning that they could wind up without a home and tens of thousands of dollars in debt.
Grubb, who commutes to Washington to work, said he moved to Jefferson County to raise his children in a more rural setting. He thoroughly investigated his property and the surrounding community before he went through with the purchase, he said. Like the rest of the Ryan’s Glen homeowners, he is baffled that the plans for a bypass, which were supposedly public, could not be found anywhere on the Internet when he decided to purchase his home.
“The information just wasn’t out there,” he said. “In the technology age where everything is online, why couldn’t I find this stuff?”
All the residents expressed outrage that none of them were notified about plans for a bypass that could impact their subdivision when they went to close on their houses. Their anger was amplified by the fact that the Planning Commission and Ryan’s Glen developer Lou Athey were warned of the possibility in 2005.
Recordings of a Planning Commission meeting on August 9, 2005 show that local resident Glen Hetzel warned both Athey and commission members that there could be future conflict between the subdivision and the 340 bypass.
“My concern is where the new alignment of 340 will be when it is done,” Hetzel said. “It was my understanding that it is going through the middle of this property. I wondered if you folks had addressed that. I didn’t hear that question come up. If you’re going to put in a new subdivision you need to know where the highway might be. It’s undoubtedly going to take some of those lots out.”
Athey said he was aware that such a proposal was on the table, but he does not appear to have been aware that a specific route had been selected.
“My investigation is that there are eight proposals on the table. Some of them go well away from this property,” Athey testified. “I’ve done battle with the state highway department. If I knew the road was going through there I sure wouldn’t want to fool with this.”
Athey could not be reached for comment by press time. Planning Department documents show Athey contacted the DOH several times during the subdivision approval process, including to deed it a strip of land running along the east side of U.S. 340 for a turn lane. None of the documents from the DOH discussed the possibility of a bypass in the near future.
McConnell also expressed anger at Dan Ryan Builders, who constructed and sold the houses in the subdivision.
“They had to have known this. It’s just really sad that the people who put their trust in Dan Ryan should have this happen to them,” McConnell said. “It’s totally dishonest.”
Dan Ryan officials said they had no idea a bypass was planned in the area.
“We certainly never would have bought the lots if we knew there was a pending issue that would affect our homeowners. There’s quite a bit of frustration here that we didn’t know about it and we put our homeowners in this position,” said Keith Tunell, director of land at Dan Ryan. “(Athey) did represent in the contract that there were no eminent domain actions threatened or pending.”
Dirar Ahmad, section head of the engineering division with the DOH, said that both the Planning Commission and the developer should have known the project was on the table.
“Nobody can claim they didn’t know there was a road project planned for this area,” Ahmad said. “We were here in 2001. We were here in 2003. Everybody knew the project was ongoing and we were doing additional studies.”
Ahmad said the DOH would make every effort to avoid using eminent domain to remove residents from their homes.
“We don’t like to remove people from their homes. We don’t like to disrupt communities,” Ahmad said. “We take every step humanly possible within engineering bounds to make sure that the impacts to businesses, to residents, to resources which we are all proud of is minimized. This area is growing. Unfortunately for us it’s making our decision harder and harder.
“It’s like a catch-22. The area is growing which means the demand for transportation is growing. At the same time, when the area grows then we end up impacting more people, and that is the last thing we want to do.”
But it is unclear exactly how many homes would be removed by each of the three plans proposed by the DOH. Residents say that maps presented by the DOH at Monday’s meeting are outdated, using old plats that do not reflect a number of new subdivisions that have been added and new homes that have been built in the last two years.
Ahmad said in an interview that only two houses would be demolished, though documents they provided indicate four or five would be destroyed. Residents who looked at the maps contend it could be as many as seven homes.
Grubb said he was not satisfied by Monday’s meeting.
“They’ve got a legal requirement to have these meetings. They’re just checking a box,” he said. “There was a definite level of negligence on a lot of people’s part.”