Special Assignment: Losing Ground

By: Ryan Duffy
By: Ryan Duffy

The Georgia Department of Transportation's Savannah River Parkway is a massive road project--156 miles long, costing more than $12 million.

When it's finished it will be four lanes from Augusta to Savannah.

But some people living along the project say they're paying a high price for the progress.

In a News 12 investigation, Ryan Duffy shows how they are losing ground.

Hundreds of people along the Savannah River Parkway have either lost homes or been forced to sell land to the DOT for the project.

And our investigation found a pattern of complaints from landowners of low and unfair offers for their land.

Inside South Point Christian Center in Waynesboro, church services are a peaceful, prayerful time.

But just outside the sanctuary doors, the sound of progress is in the air.

Crews are hard at work on the Highway 25 Savannah River Parkway.

And the Georgia Department of Transportation took some of the church's land to build it.

"When they told us the offer, kind of thought it was a joke," says pastor DJ Daly.

Three years ago, the DOT offered the church about $3,000 an acre for three acres of their frontage property.

Daly says it's a low offer, and looking at land nearby he may be right. The owner of the property right next door, Don Crawford, was paid $10,000 an acre.

"I think what they do is go up the highway and make offers," Crawford says. "Everyone gives in because they think have to take it, could have gotten more money a lot of them."

"Their property is feet away, got $10,000 an acre on both sides of us," Daly says.

We found the same thing happening a few miles down the road in Millen. The DOT paid $10,000 for one acre. Right next to it the DOT took a quarter of an acre. You would think it would pay $2500 dollars. It didn't--just $750.

"You could come out here, sit in the yard, all kinds of privacy, what have I got now, wide open spaces," says Annie Lou Burke, the former owner of that quarter acre.

She feels the $750 she received was unfair...and she wasn't paid anything for the six 40-year-old cedar trees cut down in her front yard.

"We had no choice, we felt like no choice anyway," she says.

Vonda Everett of the Georgia Department of Transportation tells News 12, "We don't compare one person's property to their next door neighbor's property because it depends on things, like if the neighbor has a hundred acres, wouldn't compare to neighbors with one acre."

The DOT says it always offers fair market value.

But landowners News 12 talked to say they feel the first offers are low, to see who will take the money quickly.

"If someone was buying my land they would think it's worth a lot of money. But when I go to pay taxes it's not worth as much as it is when someone's buying it. Anybody who's selling will think the price is too low," the DOT's Everett says.

The only choice to challenge a low offer is court, but that's time consuming and expensive.

South Point Church has been trying to take the DOT to court for more than three years.

They've had to hire their own attorney, appraiser, and experts.

"It's like, what's the fight worth?" Daly says. "We'll maybe break even, with court costs, attorney's fees, just getting what's owed to us."

The Georgia DOT would not comment on the church's case because it could soon go to a jury trial.

And the DOT would not show us the records on what it paid out for land around the church in Burke and Richmond counties because some of those cases are still being settled.

And they don't want landowners to see what they're paying to people in the area.

If you go through the process and win your case with the DOT or you settle, they will not reimburse your court costs. Some states do, but not Georgia. So if you don't take that first offer, you're stuck. You will have to spend money on appraisers and an attorney, and they get your land anyway regardless of what happens.

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