Judge halts Forest Hill Road widening

mstucka@macon.comMarch 21, 2013 

A judge said Thursday that he’ll sign an order preventing trees from being removed along Forest Hill Road for the next 30 days.

A contractor was expected to begin removing trees next week, clearing the way for utility relocation and other parts of the road project.

Macon road activist Lindsay “Doc” Holliday sought both the temporary injunction and a permanent injunction against the state’s widening plans, which he said are less safe than an alternative plan and could destroy the tree canopy and nearby streams. The Georgia Department of Transportation sought to dismiss the case, which could happen in the coming weeks.

An attorney for the DOT, Senior Assistant Attorney General Mary Jo Volkert, warned that any delays could be expensive because the contractor would have arranged for workers, materials and equipment.

“This is years and years of going on. I guess it’s unfortunate Doc Holliday just got his attorney, but this case is a couple months old, and things move. I don’t know that we would agree that just maintaining the status quo is not harmful to the state and citizens of Georgia,” she said in her last argument before Superior Court judge Edgar Ennis announced his intentions. Ennis asked for a proposed order to be given to him before the end of Friday.

DOT officials declined to comment, and Holliday and his attorney left the courtroom soon after Ennis adjourned.

Ennis said he would sign an injunction prohibiting trees and other substantial vegetation from being removed over the next 30 days. Attorneys in the case also have 21 days to research whether the case should be dismissed because the state has immunity, then have a hearing on the issue 28 days from Thursday. Those deadlines could be extended if both parties agree.

Mark Spence, who is managing the Forest Hill Road work for contractor R.J. Haynie & Associates of Lake City, was reading about the injunction on macon.com when a reporter called. He declined to guess how much money the injunction could cost, but he said his schedule -- and those of other companies -- are going to be thrown off. Crews were going to clear trees, build culverts and construct retaining walls next week, all of which has to be put on hold until the trees are cleared.

“There’s 16 different subcontractors on the job, so their schedule’s going to be delayed,” as well as that of utility companies that need to move infrastructure, he said.

Ennis announced at the outset of the hearing that an earlier hearing had been “improvident” because it was held without proper notice to the state, which did not send representatives.

“We’re starting over, ground zero, here,” Ennis said.

Volkert argued that Holliday’s lawsuit should be thrown out unless he can prove the state failed in some very specific ways, such as whether it violated the law or abused its discretion arbitrarily and capriciously.

“I believe the court at this point with the evidence on record will grant the motion to dismiss,” she said. Ennis did not dismiss, but he said attorneys will have several weeks to make arguments on the issue.

Holliday is no longer representing himself. Robert J. Waddell Jr. of Atlanta joined the case Wednesday. Holliday said another engineer has offered a safer design for a widening of Forest Hill Road.

Waddell said the lawsuit’s major issue is whether the current plan is bad, not whether Holliday’s preferred plan is better.

“It’s not the fact that we prefer A over B. It’s the fact that B is flawed from the outset,” he said.

Volkert said construction barrels have been placed on the road, but no land has been disturbed yet.

DOT can be asked for damages from the contractor. Volkert repeatedly argued that the widening plan wasn’t generated by the state, but came through Macon and Bibb County governments through the Macon Area Transportation Study metropolitan planning organization. It wasn’t clear whether any contractor damages could be borne by local governments.

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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