Parkway extension to get second look
Appeals court rules Feds can reconsider environmental impact

By ROBERT WILSON, wilsonb@knews.com
July 8, 2004

A federal appeals court in Cincinnati is ordering that the Federal Highway
Administration be allowed to revisit the environmental issues surrounding
construction of an extension of the Pellissippi Parkway through Blount
County.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Wednesday reversed a Nashville federal
court ruling that prevented the highway administration from withdrawing a
2002 "finding of no significant impact" concerning the controversial project.

The Pellissippi Parkway Extension, which would connect I-140 from where it
ends now near the Airport Motor Mile to East Lamar Alexander Parkway
east of Maryville, has been a contentious issue in Blount County for years.

Supporters say the planned 4.5-mile limited-access, four-lane highway would
relieve traffic congestion along Alcoa Highway and through the hearts of
both Alcoa and Maryville.

Opponents, mostly residents whose property would be affected by the construction of the extension, say they do not want a major highway cut through their area, through farms and meadowlands that typify the rural nature of the county.

Completion of the road would require the acquisition of about 155 acres of new right-of-way.

The opponents formed a not-for-profit group called Citizens Against the Pellissippi Parkway Extension and filed suit to prevent the road from becoming a reality.

Wednesday's ruling orders the lower court to "vacate or modify" its injunction, saying it erred in refusing to allow the highway administration to reconsider its finding of no significant impact. In doing so, the appeals court said, the district court "precluded the agency from acting to comply with the very statute that formed the basis for the lawsuit."

The appeals court added, "It is an abuse of discretion to prevent an agency
from acting to cure the very legal defects asserted by plaintiffs challenging federal action."

Joe W. McCaleb, a Hendersonville attorney representing the opponents,
declined comment on the ruling until he can go over it with his clients. A
spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Transportation also declined
comment for the same reason.

The lawsuit dates back to June 7, 2002, when the citizens group filed suit
in federal court against the Federal Highway Administration and TDOT to halt
any further action on the extension. The plaintiffs claimed that the project
is in the Class I category, which according to highway administration guidelines "significantly affect(s) the environment and require(s)" an environmental impact study.

The administration had issued a lower-level environmental assessment on Oct. 3, 2001, and seven months later the finding of no significant impact.

The suit that followed sought to determine why an environmental impact
statement was not performed.

Three weeks after the lawsuit was filed, the highway administration told TDOT it was suspending funding for the project. In response, TDOT said it was considering proceeding without federal funds.

It was at this point that the Nashville court issued an injunction against any further work on the project by anyone.

On Aug. 29, 2002, the highway administration announced it was withdrawing
the finding of no significant impact and asked the court to allow it to re-examine it.

But the court refused because of TDOT's inclination to proceed without federal funds.

It was this refusal that the appeals court reversed Wednesday.

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Robert Wilson may be reached at 865-981-9117.

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