Quorum Court Hears from Peco Road Litigants
Members of the Clay County Quorum Court heard from an attorney for the two families involved in the ongoing litigation over CR 142, commonly known as Peco Road, at their regular meeting Monday night at Corning. Beau Wilcox, of Conway, spoke to the JPs about the lawsuit filed by his clients concerning the acquisition of a strip of land along their property, which was used to widen the road to the Peco Foods grain operation. Wilcox is representing the Skaggs and Baxley families, who chose not to take the county's offer when the property was acquired over two years ago.
“This is a bit of an uncoventional effort on my part,” Wilcox told the court members as he reviewed the history of the issue. He then asked the JPs to consider trying to reach a compromise on the amount of money offered.
The lawsuit stemmed from the acquisition of a strip of land along the north side of CR 142, just east of U.S. Highway 67 north of Corning. The additional land was needed to facilitate the widening and paving of the road, which leads to the Peco Foods grain facility. At the time there were a total of seven landowners affected by the project, with the other five accepting the buy-out offered by then county judge Gary Howell.
Noting the two sides were, “not that far apart,” Wilcox indicated the amount offered for the Skaggs and Baxley property was “substantially less” than they felt it was worth. He also introduced Ross Rainwater, of First National Bank, who provided a few details about his independent appraisal of the land.
Reporting on his preliminary figures, Rainwater echoed the sentiment that the offer was too low. He noted the price, figured on value per square foot, indicated his calculations were much closer. Pressed for more details he said the Baxley property had an estimated value of $17,000 while the Skaggs property would be valued at $50,000.
Rainwater indicated his estimates were based on the acquisition of land in the Hoxie and Walnut Ridge area several years ago, which allowed for the extension of U.S. Highway 67. “There's just not much up-to-date information available locally,” he explained.
Providing an update from the county's point of view was Atty. Mike Trail, who noted the original appraisal was completed by an individual secured due to the use of grant funds for the project and did not represent the county.
He noted the original amounts for the majority of the appraisals was between $1,200 and $1,400 for each, with the exception of a longer section of farm land. Trail indicated then county judge Howell chose to offer the landowners more than the appraised amount, instead offering them $4,000 each. At that point five of the landowners agreed, with the Skaggs and Baxley families choosing to take the matter to court.
The attorney questioned the manner in which the acquisition was handled, inferring the county didn't do their due dilligence in trying to expand the road to the south. He also noted the families were unhappy with the way they were portrayed in the newspaper at the time, offering that they felt former judge Howell had commented that they were being difficult and standing in the way of progress in the county.
Wilcox also bemoaned the fact he has been unable to get a court date for a jury trail, noting there had been a number of delays.
Trail explained that Clay County only has two weeks of court each year, and criminal cases take precedence, “it could be two or three years before they can get it on the docket,” he surmised. “I'm sure things are much more efficient where Mr. Wilcox practices, but we only get Judge Philhours two weeks out of the year,” he offered in explaining the schedule was mandated by the state legislature.
“We've already settled with these other families, and it wouldn't be right to go back and renegotiate,” Justice David Cagle offered. “I think we need to let it go to the jury trial and we'll do whatever they decide.”
Later in the meeting the justices briefly revisited the matter, but took no action.
“We paid the others two or three times what the appraised value was, we can't change in mid-stream,” Cagle reiterated. “I think this is something a jury needs to decide.”
Judge Patterson, who was not in office at the time of the controversy, noted the funds to pay the families is still in the budget, if they chose to settle.
Earlier in the meeting the JPs considered Ordinance 2017-07, waiving that it be read on three seperate occasions and approving it along with the accompanying emergency clause. The ordinance distributes a total of $3,500 of a Local Law Enforcment Block Grant; a court security grant in the amount of $11,879; point mapping grant in the amount of $15,000; donations for cameras in the amount of $7,124.34; donations for the emergency task force in the amount of $2,000, and reimbursements for the judge and OEM departments for travel from ADEM in the amount of $238.79 and amends the 2017 budgets accordingly.
The ordinance was passed on a voice vote of 8-0 as Justice Mansker was absent from the gathering.
Also approved on all three readings, along with the emergency clause, was Ordinance 2017-08 which amends the county employee handbook. This ordinance amends the employment policy handbook to authorize the paying of employees every two weeks, as opposed to monthly.
Under the legislation, employees will be paid every other Friday. It also stipulates that new road department employees will have 40 hours of pay used as a deposit for uniforms which are provided. It also notes the monies will be refunded when the road employee terminates their employment, and returns the uniforms.
The measure also passed on a voice vote of 8-0, along with the emergency clause which allows it to go into effect immediately.
During his update, Judge Mike Patterson reported work on CR 142 has been underway, as a large area of pavement has been dug up and new fill material added. He also gave the court an update on discussions with the railroad concerning crossings north of Corning, which are providing a number of problems.
“We had a grain truck hit at one of them recently, it's dangerous and we need to make sure these guys can see a train coming,” he offered. “They said they would clear 300 feet either side of a crossing, but there's some areas where that's just not enough.”
Patterson also reported the rehabilitation effort in the Success area continues, as road crews are still working on areas hard-hit by the May flooding.
Sheriff Terry Miller provided a brief update, noting his department is working hard to maintain their “rolling stock.” He indicated the department is in the process of acquiring two new vehicles, and hope to add two or three more next year. “We're running into some big expense keeping them on the road, things like new engines and transmissions, and such,” he offered.