LaGRANGE — Rivals of a proposal thoroughfare that would connect Vernon and Cameron Mill roads through undeveloped land owned by the Callaway Land Trust returned to the County Commission on Friday seeking to halt the project.
LaGrange City Council gave the project initial approval Tuesday with the 5-1 passage of an intergovernmental agreement that lays out the parameters, scope and respective responsibilities of the city and county as they relate to the road project. Commissioners are slated to vote on whether to enter that agreement this coming Tuesday.
Construction of the road, dubbed the Northwest Connector, would be managed by city officials, but paid for using county-administered special-purpose, local option sales tax, or SPLOST, approved by voters for countywide projects.
The Callaway Foundation — which is a separate entity from the Callaway Land Trust — has pledged $2 million toward construction. SPLOST would fund the remaining balance, estimated to be about $2.5 million, although that number could change, county officials say. Right-of-way for the road is slated to be donated by the land trust.
‘A solution looking for a problem’
Opponents of the road, many of whom live in the Highland Country Club neighborhood, have raised concerns that the Northwest Connector could eventually lead to a future road that would travel through their neighborhood and connect with the existing LaGrange bypass system. City Council has refuted that concern, going as far as passing a resolution ordering city staff to refrain from pursuing such a project — although that resolution cannot legally bind future councils.
Opponents, including Dupuy Sears of Country Club Drive, have also questioned the method by which the road was planned, contending taxpayer dollars are being allocated for an unnecessary project that primarily benefits a private entity, the Callaway Land Trust.
Addressing commissioners Friday, Sears made pitch similar to one he gave Council on Tuesday. He said the road was a “solution looking for a problem,” and claimed the none of the city and county official’s justifications — which include quicker access to the hospital and easing of traffic on Vernon Road — held water.
Sears countered officials’ reasoning for the road, saying it benefited few people, would only slightly cut down on travel time to the hospital and would provide little return on investment for taxpayers.
‘The last 48 years’
James Emery, the county’s roads engineer, offered his own rebuttal, and said the road has been planned since the 1960s, but was stymied by the Callaway family. The family used the land for recreation purposes for decades, according to Speer Burdette, president of the Callaway Foundation.
“A road through this tract of land has been proposed in Troup County transportation plans for the last 48 years,” Emery said. “Up until 2014, the property owners have not expressed any interest in cooperating with the prior recommendations of the transportation plans.”
Various transportation studies of the county have been conducted since at least 1968, with the most recent being the Troup County Multimodal Transportation Study of 2006.
It’s no secret that Vernon Road during rush hour has become “LaGrange’s biggest bottleneck,” Emery said, and various solutions have been suggested over the years to ease the traffic. The 2006 transportation study suggested a road that would have completed the bypass. That road went from Roanoke Road and Pegasus Parkway north — partially through Callaway Land Trust property — and turned east after crossing West Point Lake to connect with what is today the intersection of Ann Bailey and Mooty Bridge roads.
Emery said the proposed Northwest Connector is a variation of that suggestion, but Sears sees it differently. He argues the road suggested in the 2006 study is different from the Northwest Connector because it starts and ends in different places. He’s concerned that, eventually, it could become part of the bypass.
“It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see you’d have to complete the bypass there, which goes right through us,” he said.
SPLOST money and private development
On the subject of SPLOST, Sears contends the Callaway Foundation wants to give the land trust $2 million to develop the road, but is unable to do it directly because of tax laws. He claims the foundation is using the city as a “conduit” to transfer the money, along with the estimated $2.5 million in SPLOST.
Sears said the motivation for transferring the funds is to build a road that would open up the more than 1,600 acres of land for development. To develop the tract, a road would have to be cut, and in general, private developers are responsible for building roads in subdivisions — not taxpayers. Sears also said he unequivocally appreciated the generosity the Callaway Foundation has shown to LaGrange and Troup County over the years.
Burdette, the Callaway Foundation’s president, said he “took exception” to Sears’ comments about the road and defended the public-private partnership to build it.
“First of all, Mr. Emery clearly stated that we (the Callaway Foundation) are responding to a need in the community to help build this road,” Burdette said. “Nobody knows what this road is going to cost, but the foundation was willing to contribute $2 million to help make this road for the benefit of our community.”
Burdette explained that the Callaway Land Trust is organized in a way that will prevent anyone from benefiting from it for two more generations.
“The people he (Sears) thinks are getting benefit are not,” he said. “There’s no benefit.”
He added that while there are presently no plans to develop the land trust property, he hopes in the future there would be.
“I hope that one day we do see a development there,” Burdette said. “It’s for the good of our community, and it’s one of the best pieces of property in our community, which ironically, will only help the country club potentially engage more members, which they direly need. The Callaway Foundation is not a developer, nor are the family members associated with this.
“I really resent that the Callaway Foundation has been somewhat smeared a bit in this, and alleged that we’re doing something unethical and wrong,” he continued. “This road is about transportation.”
County commissioners are scheduled to vote on the intergovernmental agreement, which would push the project forward, on Tuesday at their 9 a.m. meeting at the Troup County Government Center, 100 Ridley Ave.
Tyler H. Jones is a reporter for LaGrange Daily News. He may be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2155.