Leader Blues

Monday, February 01, 2010

TOP STORY >> Land feud threatens to quash road plan


By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Politics and hard feelings on the Lonoke County Quorum Court threaten to scuttle an $800,000 state Highway Department improvement to an unwieldy and dangerous Hwy. 67/167 exit at Cabot.

All planning and engineering have been completed. The money is available, and the Highway Department wants to let the bids in April for the project, which would slightly reroute the southbound Hwy. 67/167 exit traffic to a signal at Hwy. 5.

Currently, it causes a traffic snarl, sometimes backing up toward the highway.

The problem is Lonoke County’s matching funds to buy about two acres of right of way.

Most of it belongs to Lonoke County Quorum Court member Larry Odom and his wife, and the balance belongs to state Rep. Barry Hyde, according to County Judge Charlie Troutman.

Hyde has refused offers of $3 a square foot, Troutman said. He said if they can’t come to an agreement, he’d condemn Hyde’s land.

As the county’s chief executive officer, Troutman is authorized to purchase such property, but Republicans on the quorum court suspected a sweetheart deal between Odom and Troutman, who have worked together on the court for more than a decade.

Odom at first offered to sell his property for $60,000, about half of its appraised value. But some on the court cried foul. Even though Odom is a Republican, he is estranged from fellow Republicans, who don’t like the way he votes or his friendship with Troutman.

A subsequent Highway Depart-ment appraisal of the land it needs from Odom was $144,000, and Odom, feeling insulted by his fellow quorum court members has now said he won’t sell for the original price.

At the January quorum court meeting, Troutman asked the justices to approve an ordinance allowing the sale.

After some heated debate, the motion was tabled. “There is a time frame,” Cabot Mayor Eddie Joe Williams said Friday. “The Highway Department said the bid letting would be in April. Otherwise, the money gets turned back.

I worked hard for two years to get it in. It’s one of the most unsafe intersections in the Cabot area. I hope we can resolve it and move on.”

Justice of the Peace Mark Edwards of Cabot, who circulated an email in opposition to the project, now says he believes realigning the exit is a safety concern.

He said he believes about half of the Republicans on the quorum court will vote for it, and most if not all of the Democrats.

One thing that bothers some quorum court members is that the deed to Odom’s property has been signed and filed at the county clerk’s office. They say Troutman put the cart before the horse.

“I think it’s something that we need,” Edwards said. “There’s been something around 80 wrecks in that general area.”

Odom disqualified himself from voting at the January meeting. Troutman says it’s not a conflict of interest for Odom to vote on the matter, but Edwards says he disagrees.