The lesser-known cost of big road projects in Butler County: Paying millions for the land

When governments plan infrastructure improvements, they often have to buy land from private citizens and businesses, which costs time and a considerable amount of money.

A sampling of projects handled by the Butler County Engineer’s Office or local cities have done in the past several years show Hamilton had the largest property purchase bill and longest negotiation time to acquire the property.

Hamilton Director of Engineering Rich Engle said the city paid $6.7 million for land to build the $32 million South Hamilton Crossing that opened in December 2018. He said after seven years, it is “nearing the end of negotiations” over the final parcel.

The Crossing is an overpass for Grand Boulevard above the CSX railroad tracks and is only the second east-west roadway in Hamilton on which drivers aren’t stopped by trains.

“The railroad initially had questions about the title information used to determine the areas being acquired from them. Then there was a dispute about the value of the damage to the property caused by the project,” said Allen Messer, Hamilton’s senior civil engineer. “The railroad authorized construction of the project to proceed under a construction agreement so there wasn’t an urgent need to close on the property.”

The second highest property bill in recent years was $3 million for the widening project to make Tylersville Road at the Interstate 75 interchange in West Chester Twp. The construction cost was approximately $4.9 million, and the project was completed last summer.

Butler County Engineer Greg Wilkens settled a two-year-long legal battle with Wendy’s recently for $800,000 after the fast food giant wanted $1.4 to $1.5 million, according to Wilkens. The county had to deposit $420,866 with the Butler County Common Pleas Court when it sued Wendy’s, which allowed the project to proceed while the parties haggled over the price.

“At the end of the day you could go in front of a jury with this and anytime you go in front of jury you don’t know where you’re going to go,” Wilkens said. “You take your best shot and maybe cut your losses from what a jury would award.”

There was another recent project that went to court and the county ended up settling for $132,500 for a parcel of land that was appraised at $33,482, for the intersection improvement at Liberty Way and Butler Warren Road. The construction cost was just over $1 million and was completed last year.

The roundabout going in this year at Millikin and LeSourdsville West Chester roads in Liberty Twp. required two parcel purchases, one for $15,770 and the other $12,770 after they were appraised at $7,330 and $9,300 respectively. The construction cost is $751,968.

The city of Fairfield has only had one project in the last five years that included significant property purchases, according to Public Works Director Ben Mann. Property purchases for the Ohio 4 and Holden Boulevard project that began in 2015 cost $321,156 for seven parcels, which was 13.5% of the $2.36 million total cost.

“We made every effort with design to minimize right-of-way impacts. We did this to keep costs down but even more we did it to minimize impact on the operations of the adjacent businesses,” Mann said. “We chose not to put in a double left turn or a sidewalk on both sides of the road in order to keep right of way impacts on the businesses from being too extensive.”

Engle said right-of-way costs typically include consultant fees for negotiating a price, the actual price, legal fees and possibly relocation costs which “can have a large impact.” Aside from South Hamilton Crossing, the city has spent $883,000 on property acquisition for three projects totaling $11.4 million. The highest cost was $715,000 for the Main/Millville/Eaton intersection and the lowest $54,500 for Main/Cereal/Haldimand and Western intersection.

Middletown has had two recent road widening projects one on Yankee Road where the land purchase was $507,200 on the $5.71 million project and another on Oxford State Road where the purchase price was $243,600 and construction was $6.4 million.

The cities of Oxford and Trenton haven’t had to buy any land for roadwork recently.

Wilkens said every project is different and not all require taking private land, like the new diverging diamond interchange at Union Centre Boulevard and Interstate 75 in West Chester.

“That one we got by with,” Wilkens said. “That was a $20 million job and you say $2 million should be in right of way, that’s 10% but it wasn’t the case. They all vary. And everyone is fighting right now, right of way is just getting tougher.”

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