Litigation, land issues delay road projects

By Thomas Wilson
star staff

  Two multimillion-dollar road projects in Carter County face further delays as state officials await federal review of a Native American site on one project and prepare legal action to access private property where an additional site may be located.
  Construction of the four-lane Northern Connector highway was essentially halted last year after American Indian artifacts including at least one burial ground were found in the highway's proposed path. The Tennessee Department of Transportation officials now say they may have found another prehistoric Native American site on the private property where a project to widen State Route 359/Gap Creek Road is in early development stages.
  An archaeology survey company discovered Native American artifacts in the Northern Connector path late last year. The project, originally estimated at $28 million, has been at a virtual standstill since the discovery.
  "While we are disappointed with the pace of the work, we are pleased that work is continuing, which is the important thing," Rep. Jerome Cochran told media members at a press conference held Friday morning at his law office in Elizabethton. "It is stuff beyond our control."
  Cochran said Friday that state officials might have discovered a prehistoric American Indian site within Gap Creek Road's planned corridor. A landowner in the Gap Creek Road corridor has denied state officials access to his property to conduct a similar phase II report for American Indian artifacts.
  Cochran said TDOT was initiating legal action to gain access to the property.
  "There is no intention to condemn the property," Cochran said. "They simply want access for testing."
  Legal proceedings to gain access to the property on Gap Creek Road could take at least 90 days, Cochran said. Once state officials access the property testing would take three to four weeks.
  If findings are negative, a final report would be issued in six to seven months.
  Cochran said a species report was also being prepared in Cherokee National Forest. At the very earliest, a draft environmental approval report could be completed by the end of this year.
  Public hearings regarding the Gap Creek Road project could begin as early as next spring.
  The federal government provides transportation project funding that is administered through state transportation departments. Discovery of Native American burial grounds or sites requires the notification of the federal government during highway construction projects.
  A phase II draft report on archaeological sites along the Northern Connector's projected corridor was sent to the State Historic Preservation Officer on Sept. 9. The report identified six prehistoric American Indian sites located within the corridor. Three of the sites are considered eligible for the National Historic Register.
  The state historic office will review the sites and go into consultation with the Federal Highway Administration as well as representatives for national historic preservation and Native American tribes.
  The earliest the consultation could be completed was by the end of 2004 with final environmental approval coming in April of 2005. Property acquisitions for the connector's right of way could begin next summer.
  The Northern Connector extends from West Elk Avenue at the VFW Post No. 2166 to the intersection of State Highway 91 and U.S. Highway 19E. The highway will cross the Watauga River at two points -- immediately behind its access point on West Elk Avenue and over the Donnie Davis Memorial Bridge on North Lynn Avenue. The City of Elizabethton has repeatedly lobbied TDOT to extend a third crossing point from the connector into the Cherokee Industrial Park, which is owned by the city for industrial development.
  Cochran said TDOT had presented a final route for the connector, but that corridor could change depending on the recommendations of the FHA and Native American tribal representatives.
  Cochran stopped short of faulting TDOT for the projects' delay. He did say that both he and state Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, had been concerned by mixed signals and contradictory information about the two projects from TDOT in recent months.
  "It is my hope that this information from TDOT is accurate and up to date," he said.