The Wyoming Transportation Department did everything right in the late 1990s when it began planning for a four-lane road west of Casper, an attorney for the state said Tuesday.
But the owners of property south of the North Platte River wanted more than what the state was willing to offer for their land for the 7.5-mile West Belt Loop, Special Assistant Attorney General David Ditto said during the opening statements of a scheduled three-day bench trial in Natrona County District Court.
So the Wyoming Transportation Commission had to file a lawsuit to condemn 29 acres of the property of Robert and Cynthia Schlidt, Ditto told District Judge Scott Skavdahl.
The Schlidts’ attorney, Pat Crank, agreed Natrona County needs a two-line highway to connect U.S. Highway 20/26 at the business bypass to Wyoming Highway 220 near the Gothberg subdivision.
But, Crank said, the state violated the law when it sought a wider right of way for a four-lane highway that won’t be needed for many years and acted in bad faith in dealing with the Schlidts .
“If you’re going to take private citizens’ private property rights, you have to do it right,” he said. “They cannot go beyond statutory authority. That alone is fatal to this condemnation action.”
The state wanted excessively wide easements, such as a 510-foot easement in one area that is larger than the 300 feet needed, Crank said. The land taken would include a hill set be razed for fill material, and the state was doing this to obtain the dirt based on a per-acre price instead of paying the greater cubic yard price, he said.
Crank added WYDOT officials deposed for the case did not know about the requirements of Wyoming’s eminent domain laws.
However, Ditto focused the state’s case on WYDOT’s extensive work beginning in the late 1990s, when it hired HDR Engineering Inc. to conduct an environmental assessment that included determining the necessity of the West Belt Loop, designs and alternatives, public comments including those from the Schlidts and peer reviews from other engineers.
The state, Ditto said, acted in good faith in appraising the property, saying WYDOT shifted the alignment for the road after protests from the Schlidts, who then bought the 147 acres within the highway corridor.
Construction is set to begin in 2011.
The road would increase mobility and safety, reduce congestion and divert truck traffic around Casper, according to WYDOT.
Crank had said WYDOT officials and others associated with the project did not know when the two-lane highway would be expanded to four lanes.
Ditto responded that making preparations for a four-lane road -up to but not including gravel and paving -will save money and avoid another lengthy environmental assessment.
“If the scope of the project is cut back, the department will have to start again,” he said.
The trial is scheduled to continue today.