A top official of the Tennessee Department of Transportation says he is optimistic his agency will be able to resolve dozens of encroachment issues with business and home owners along the highway in Townsend.
“This community is an economic engine,” Paul Degges, chief engineer and assistant TDOT commissioner, told a crowd of nearly 100 who gathered at the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center on Tuesday evening. “We don’t want to do anything” that will have an adverse effect on tourism in Townsend or Blount County.
A dispute between business owners more than a year ago touched off a controversy over signs, buildings, landscaping and other things that have been sited on TDOT’s right of way along the state Highway 73/U.S. Highway 321 corridor, prompting the state to issue about 80 letters demanding the encroachments be removed.
Tuesday’s meeting was held to answer questions about property owners’ options, including removing the encroachment, or seeking to have a portion of the right of way declared excess, which would allow the property owners to purchase or lease the land containing the disputed item.
After the two-hour question-and-answer session, Degges said that the criteria for declaring right of way excess include traffic safety and other issues. And the state, he said, can decline to declare the land excess or can reduce the amount of it TDOT is willing to sell.
The Townsend right of way is generally about 300 feet wide and was purchased in the late 1940s and early 1950s when a four-lane divided roadway was planned. But, Degges said, not all the allotted space was needed when TDOT followed the community’s desire for “something more compact” when the roadway was widened in the 1990s.
The result, he said, is that TDOT may own more right of way than it needs, allowing property owners to buy the land their encroachments are on and to keep them in place.
Degges said it can take as long as 18 months to complete the process of having land declared excess and buying the property. TDOT, he said, will work to resolve each dispute individually rather than impose a “blanket” solution for all.