Photo: aroid (Flickr)
Landowners along I-69’s Section 4 in Greene and Monroe counties say INDOT’s “Kitchen Table Discussions” to talk about how I-69 would affect their property were premature and in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.
According to INDOT, the first meetings with property owners in Section 4 were held in November 2010. However, the Record of Decision for that section was not approved until almost a year later in September 2011.
Greene County resident, Bill Boyd, who lives in Section 4 of the I-69 corridor, says INDOT’s sit-down meetings were a means to sell the project to land owners and persuade them to sell their property before INDOT had the legal authority to do so.
“These kitchen table talks were an effort to get advanced information from landowners plus to make them believe that this is the best thing since sliced bread and get them to buy-in to the project,” he says.
INDOT spokeswoman, Cher Elliott, says the meetings did not violate the law.
“INDOT is not aware of any law that prevents us from speaking with citizens including those who could be affected by a highway project like I-69,” she says.
Attorney Mick Harrison is representing Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads and the I-69 Accountability Project, among others in pending litigation against INDOT. He says the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA, which in certain cases requires a Record of Decision before the land acquisition process can begin.
“Having a meeting and talking with people may seem harmless, but if you’re spending money to pay the staff to do it, and it’s part of the land acquisition process, in our view, it’s premature under the federal law at a minimum and possibly the state law,” Harrison says.
The ruling on whether INDOT has violated NEPA may hinge, in part, on the agency’s status as either a state or federal entity in regards to I-69.
Harrison says INDOT is acting as a Federal agency in this case and is therefore subject to the project timeline provisions in NEPA.
“NEPA is targeted to Federal Agencies, but the Federal case law is clear that if a State Agency is in such a central role on a project that you couldn’t ensure enforcement of the Federal law without enjoining them,” he says.
Land acquisition is just one part of the lawsuit Harrison plans to bring against INDOT and the Federal Highway Administration at a hearing next week in Indianapolis. Due to pending litigation, INDOT declined to comment regarding the agency’s status. If successful, the lawsuit could result in an injunction and at least temporarily stop construction on I-69.