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Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Stormy Night In Cottondale

By: Sid Riley
Tuesday evening Jackson County Development Council Director Bill Stanton attempted to make an informative presentation to a noisy crowd of approximately three hundred citizens that had come to the meeting because they feared their lives would be impacted if a proposed north-south toll road comes through Jackson County. The crowd opposing the project was comprised of one group who own or operate businesses along highway 231. Another part of the crowd was comprised of property owners who feared their family properties might be seized by government through "eminent domain" in order to create a route for the road. Mingled in with these was a group of fifteen or twenty citizens who came to the function primarily for the purpose of disrupting the meeting in order to prevent anyone from listening to the pro’s and con’s of the project.
Stanton began his presentation by explaining the history of the toll road project and why it has come forward for consideration. He explained that the primary impetus for the creation of the toll road is coming from pressure from Dothan investors who recognize the fact that the lack of an interstate connector in that city is restricting growth there.
He then displayed area maps that exhibited the potential routes the road might take, what had been previously considered, and that a fifteen mile wide swath of land through Jackson County remains under consideration by the developers. This swath covers the area between the west border of Jackson County 3.2 miles west of Cottondale to near Marianna on the east.
He tried to assure the concerned property owners that our County Commissioners as well as himself and the JCDC were opposed to the use of eminent domain to create a final route, and that the final decisions and approvals would remain with the Jackson County Commissioners. However, the crowd had been previously aroused by rampant rumors of land seizure, and they remained fixed in their opposition.
Stanton explained that the venture is not a government project and that the funding would come through bonds that would be issued by the Toll Road Authority to private institutional investors. No federal, state, county, or city funds would be involved in any aspect of the project.
He tried to explain to the business owners along 231 that rely on tourist traffic, such as the fruit stands, candy stores, and handicraft vendors, the fact, that regardless of whether or not the road comes through Jackson County, much of the existing tourist traffic will use the new road. Those businesses will be impacted if the road is built anywhere through the panhandle. The business owners seemed to turn a deaf ear to that realization and continued their ranting about losing business if the road came through Jackson County.
Stanton tried to explain if the road came through Jackson County two new major interchange points would be created. These would then develop with distribution centers and other businesses which would create jobs and ease the tax burden on private citizens through expansion of the ad valorem tax base. That argument seemed to have little impact on the crowd which had come to the meeting with pre-formed opinions.
The Western portion of Jackson County is District 2, which is represented by Commissioner Edward Crutchfield. He was at the meeting and was probably swayed by the antics of the Cottondale crowd. However, a few days ago the City Commissions in nearby Graceville and Campbellton both voted to endorse further investigation of the proposal by the County Commission.
By 9:30 the crowd had dwindled to approximately 100, with most of those who were most vocal having left. This residue of approximately 30% of the original attendees was willing to listen with an open mind, and Stanton was ultimately able to obtain a unanimous vote from these citizens for appointing a committee of five for the purpose of drafting a resolution to the County Commissioners that would provide the safeguards to the land owners that everyone felt were essential. After that resolution is completed, another town hall meeting will be held to hopefully satisfy the opposition while allowing the studies to proceed for determining the final route. The committee that will draft this resolution for consideration is comprised of Sonny Davis, Meigs Woodham, Lola Huddleston, Kim Lee, and William Watford.
After the meeting Bill Stanton stated that he was discouraged by the close minded approach taken by many of those in attendance, but is hopeful that the resolution from the citizens committee will provide the desired protection to property owners to thus enable consideration of the project to proceed.
He reminded everyone that he is paid by the County and has no personal interest in the project, other than hoping to accomplish changes that would create jobs and better lives for the citizens of Jackson County.
Author’s Note: In my opinion the Cottondale citizens have organized against a project that might ultimately be good for the citizens of our county without giving the opportunity for full evaluation of the situation. If the project promoters are able to satisfy all legal requirements and are able to raise the needed funding, the road will be built somewhere. If it can be built with all involved land owners selling willingly without being forced into selling or being abused financially and with all environmental issues satisfied, I personally would rather it come through Jackson County than somewhere else.
The future development at this road’s major intersections will create more tax revenues and new jobs. That eases the tax burden on the citizens of our county and provides future jobs for our children and grand children. Also, if it is to be built, those businesses along 231 would be less impacted if the road was routed near 231 than if it was miles away in another county.
For the business owners that are involved I feel their main issue is not WHERE the road goes, it is IF the road is constructed. Conversely, for the property owners near the route the issue is WHERE it would pass.
I feel we should keep the doorway open for the project until we know what the exact proposed route would be and exactly who and what would be impacted.

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