In the past five years Williamson County has acquired nearly 450 parcels of land to build, expand or improve 29 roads while filing nine condemnation lawsuits in that time, including four in 2018.
Charlie Crossfield, the county’s right-of-way attorney, said the recent uptick in lawsuits is due in part to lower road construction costs that have county commissioners pushing for quicker resolutions with landowners, leaving less time for negotiations.
Crossfield, who is responsible for the legal side of condemnation—the process in which governing entities acquire land for a negotiated price, also known as eminent domain—said county officials choose where new roads or road expansions and upgrades are needed, and he does the negotiating with the landowners.
“[The condemnation process is] just about money; it’s not about whether the road is going to be built or not,” Crossfield said.
Although all initial offers the county presents are under the threat of condemnation, Crossfield said lawsuits are rare and primarily occur when the county and a landowner cannot agree on a price.
“I’m not going to say everyone is really thrilled with us knocking on their door, but I think, in the end, most people feel like they are treated fairly not only by us but also the county commissioners,” he said.
With those acquisitions and funding from a $275 million road bond approved by voters in 2013, the county has initiated a number of road projects, including an expansion of Ronald Reagan Boulevard west of Georgetown and improvements to SE Inner Loop to allow for alternate routes and shorter commute times. The projects, county officials say, will accommodate future development.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Valerie Covey, who represents an area of the county that includes Georgetown, said she does not want Williamson County to face traffic issues similar to those Austin residents now deal with.
“We don’t need to look any farther than to our neighbors to the south in Austin,” she said about why the county needs to plan for more roads. “Growth happened, and now [Austin] can’t afford to build roads because it’s too expensive. The idea that if you don’t build [roads], [new residents]won’t come didn’t work and now you have an unenjoyable experience driving in Austin most of the time. We don’t want to be like that. We want to be proactive and plan for growth.”
Williamson County continues to grow as rising home prices send Austin residents north. Coupled with the region’s job growth and expanding economic development, Georgetown ranked as the sixth fastest-growing city nationally among cities with at least 50,000 residents, according to a May estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Covey said in order to be proactive, the county has purchased land in places officials believe future roads will be needed while land prices are less expensive.
If the county waits too long to purchase right of way—the legal right to pass through someone else’s property—it may also need to buy out businesses and move people out of their homes, which adds to the total cost of the county’s land buys.
While the county deems the building of the roads as necessary, not all transactions with landowners are smooth.
“I’m not going to say everyone is really thrilled with us knocking on their door, but I think, in the end, most people feel like they are treated fairly not only by us but also the county commissioners.”
— Charlie Crossfield, Williamson County right-of-way attorney
Joel and Tricia Allspaugh completed the condemnation process earlier this year for land adjacent to their home on Oak Haven Circle west of Georgetown but said they asked the county to build a road on their land.
The condemnation process upset some neighbors who believed the new road would negatively affect property values.
Al Fisher, who has lived in a nearby neighborhood since 1993, said the road would be built behind his property, but he is concerned that if the Allspaugh family decides to sell their land to home developers—since there would now be road access—new homes could be built up close to his property, pushing away the wild turkeys and nature he enjoys watching.
“I moved out here so I could spend my retirement years peaceful and quiet, and I’m not really sure it will last that much longer,” Fisher said.
Tricia Allspaugh said her family has not yet decided if they will sell tracts of their land but that they are keeping an open mind.
She said she wanted the road for safety reasons as the main entrance to the neighborhood can flood during heavy rain, either trapping residents in their homes or restricting access to the neighborhood altogether.
Covey said she has found many of her constituents, such as the Allspaughs, welcome new roads and are more concerned about when the roads will be completed.
“For the most part, people just want to get where they’re going in a safe and timely manner,” Covey said. “My role—our role [as commissioners]—is to plan for future growth.”