Two sets of property owners are among those in Christiana-Plainview who are questioning what the Rutherford County Highway Department is offering to pay them to buy right-of-way to improve roads for an elementary school set to open by fall 2021.
Mike and Sherrie Harris and their neighbors Walt and Jo Leverett, all of Sledge Road, said they disagree with the county’s offers, among other issues. The Harrises live directly across from the future Tan Oaks school site, while the Leveretts live just down the road and next to the site.
The county’s offers are based on appraisals done by a contracted appraiser, the couples said. Once monies offered to replace damages like fences are considered, the actual price being suggested for their land is actually lower on a per-acre basis, they said.
Jo Leverett said the county wants about 0.3 acres for a price of $5,110, including $750 to tear down a brick mailbox. The couple’s land runs underneath Sledge, she said, so she wants to know why the county cannot just get an easement; she is worried about being landlocked. They own a total of 14.1 acres.
She said other issues include Rutherford County Schools not maintaining brush growing alongside a fence bordering her driveway, which she said scratches her vehicles, as well as blasting done on the site.
Mike Harris is currently building a house on his 30.3 acres, all of which is in a greenbelt agricultural easement, he said.
The math on the offer for Harris’ property and for the value of Tan Oaks is complicated.
Rutherford County Schools paid $2,785,500 for 150 acres at Tan Oaks, or $18,570 per acre, said James Evans, communications director.
Harris said he is upset because his land is being valued at $4,455 per acre when he is directly across the road from the school land. That value is calculated by dividing his 30.3 acres by the Highway Department’s appraiser’s value of $135,000.
Property assessor records show the Harrises paid $108,900 in 2004.
A Highway Department letter to Harris offers $8,000 for 0.87 acres for right-of-way. That is about $9,195 per acre. That amount, however, includes damages for the loss of fences and trees. Harris said that was the second offer the department made, having previously offered only $3,800; the only change is an addition for wanting to tear down fences and trees.
Harris said Sledge Road floods several times a year. He acknowledged his property floods, but said the school property does too.
Harris said he has hired an attorney, Sam Blanton of Nashville.
Harris said he has been trying to draw notice to his situation. He said the first he knew about the county’s plans to build the school was when he received a letter earlier this year. He said he has tried to reach his school board representative, Lisa Moore, but she has not returned his calls.
Moore told the Murfreesboro Post she learned about Harris after he posted comments online about trying to reach her. She said she checked her voicemails and emails but found no messages from him. She said she would like to think the county is handling the school construction and right-of-way acquisition appropriately, and thought that was the case.
County Commissioner Joe Frank Jernigan is in the hospital, his wife said, so he was unable to speak about the situation.
Highway Department response
Road Superintendent Greg Brooks said the department hired an appraiser to evaluate each parcel for the right-of-way acquisition.
“I’m sure that there are accepted industry standards in the appraisal world, and I lean to the appraiser we hired to make those evaluations,” Brooks said. “I understand Mr. Harris is not happy with his appraisal. That’s regretful. I’m not trying to take advantage. I did not set the property values.”
Brooks said he wanted people to understand that the Highway Department and RCS have different roles in the process. Also, the Highway Department has never sought to buy right-of-way before; that has been handled by the County Commission and the Engineering Department, he said.
“This was the first time the Highway Department was in the acquisition process,” Brooks said.
That is because the Highway Department realized how much of a need there was in Christiana-Plainview for the school to open safely and on time, and with the tight schedule, there was not enough time to plan for road improvements, put them out for public bid and hire a private construction company to fix the roads. So, the Highway Department said it would handle the first round of improvements while doing its normal duty of maintaining 976 miles of roadway in the county.
Taking on the school project was an unexpected expense, and the county has not provided extra funding for the Highway Department, Brooks said. The department is paying for the work by transferring the money out of its fund balance, a balance that had built up over the years. The cost is currently about $3 million, but that will not complete the project, he said. The department will leave every parcel of land better off than it found them before the road work, he said.
He said he has a good line of communication with RCS.
“Our intention was to treat everybody fairly,” Brooks said. “We have never intended to try to be anything but transparent. We’re just trying to get the roads fixed” for buses, and the department is not trying to “pull something.”
Trey Lee is RCS’ assistant superintendent for engineering and construction. He said RCS does not handle ROW acquisition – that is up to the Highway Department, which says that the road improvements will fix flooding issues. There is a 100-year flood plain on the school site. RCS has designed buildings and roadways to be above that as much as possible.
RCS plans to open an elementary school on the Tan Oaks site in fall 2021, Lee said. Construction contracts have been let and the contractor is at work; they began moving dirt in early August.
Utilities are being upgraded, Lee said. Consolidated Utility District has brought water there. Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corp. is working with the Highway Department and should start working on Tan Oaks within weeks.
Tan Oaks is planned to eventually have three schools, Lee said.
Lee said he cannot speak as to how the right-of-way acquisition is occurring.
The Post asked Lee about the status of other school construction sites. He said that other than needing land to the west of Murfreesboro, RCS is in “pretty good shape.” The location of any school after Christiana-Plainview will depend on growth patterns.
RCS for at least 13 years has been adding an average of 1,000 students per year, Lee said. Evans said that is about the size of an average elementary or middle school, so a rule of thumb is that the district needs to add one school per year.
Lee and Evans said they did not have the numbers in front of them, but last year set a record for building permits issued in Rutherford County, and it appears this year will surpass that between the county and cities. Tan Oaks is expected to help alleviate overcrowding at the Christiana, Buchanan, Barfield and Rockvale Elementary schools.
The overall development cost for Tan Oaks is $41,602,000, Lee said. The elementary school and its parking lot account for $29,452,000 of that total.