Judge halts Pellissippi extension

2002-07-18 by Joel Davis of The Daily Times Staff Maryville, Tenn.

A federal judge granted a preliminary injunction Wednesday to halt extension of the Pellissippi Parkway from Old Knoxville Highway to East Lamar Alexander Parkway.

U.S. District Court Judge Todd Campbell heard oral arguments on the matter earlier in the day in U.S. District Court in Nashville.

``We are delighted,'' said Susan Keller, president of Citizens Against the Pellissippi Parkway Extension.

``We feel like this is part of a democratic process that has been fulfilled. We hope this will lead to an environmental impact statement being done to look at the effect not only on us that are losing property, but on the whole community.''

CAPPE attorney Joe McCaleb argued the Tennessee Department of Transportation did not prepare a needed environmental impact statement before beginning the third leg of the Pellissippi Parkway Project.

``This is a major federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment,'' he said.

``It doesn't matter whether TDOT is doing the acquisition or the Federal Highway Administration is doing it. It's a major fed action and both of those defendants should be required to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and do a full environmental impact statement.''

CAPPE filed its lawsuit June 7.

According to court documents, CAPPE claims the defendants have violated the national Environmental Policy Act in approving the project ``by (1) failing to prepare and circulate for public review an environmental impact statement concerning the project; (2) by preparing an inadequate and erroneous environmental assessment; and (3) by finding erroneously and contrary to the information and data available that the project will have `no significant environmental impact.'''

The CAPPE lawsuit named TDOT Commissioner J. Bruce Saltsman Sr. as a defendant as well as U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and officials of the Federal Highway Administration.

``We're very optimistic,'' CAPPE Vice President John Rush said.

Previously, the Federal Highway Administration cut off federal aid for the project because of the lawsuit.

``Obviously, our group is pleased the Federal Highway Administration is willing to take a step back and let our case be heard,'' Rush said.

The defendants claimed the motion to halt work on the project was moot because the FHA had voluntarily suspended federal funding, that the decision not to do an environmental impact statement was not arbitrary, and that they took a ``hard look'' at the environmental impacts of the decision to perform an environmental assessment.

An environmental assessment is a less thorough study than an environmental impact statement.

No government funding

A TDOT spokesperson previously said work on the parkway would continue despite the FHA withdrawal of funds and continue with state funding, but the judge's decision prevents that, for now.

``He stopped the Federal Highway Administration and TDOT from going forward with any construction, financing, land acquisition -- anything at all involving the Pellissippi Parkway -- until we had a complete full hearing on whether or not there should have been a full environmental impact statement instead of the cursory environmental assessment,'' McCaleb said.

McCaleb said it is his understanding the ruling has no impact on the work being done on the parkway from Cusick Road to Old Knoxville Highway. Wednesday's ruling stated: ``The court finds that the Plaintiff has a probability of success on the merits that the federal defendants' decision not to do an EIS was arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion.''

The court further said the studies undertaken by the defendants ``fail to take a `hard look' a the need for the project, induced growth and potential inconsistencies with local planning, air pollution and ozone impacts, impacts on the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and impacts on those whose livelihoods depend on the working farms which would be condemned as part of the project.''

Thirty-nine tracts

The extension will take approximately 39 tracts of land, which would directly affect 42 residents and one business.

TDOT has chosen a 4.5-mile route for the proposed extension.

The route follows a mostly southerly direction from where the parkway currently ends at Cusick Road to East Lamar Alexander Parkway close to Morning Star Baptist Church, 3412 E. Lamar Alexander Parkway.

Robinson of CAPPE portrayed the decision as a win for Blount County citizens.

``I know how much hard work citizens have put in regards to this project. I also know that today we have prevailed,'' Robinson said.

``Today's victory was by the people, for the people and for the common good of the citizens of Blount County.''

McCaleb said the case is now referred to the federal magistrate, who will meet with the attorneys to set up a schedule for taking depositions and a trial date. The trial could be six months or more away, the CAPPE attorney said.