On June 30, 2017, Pam Black and her husband, Fred, closed on their home at The Orchards of Big Creek, an active adult community of 89 homes, on Atlanta Highway at the intersection of Fowler Road.
The Blacks had been living in Powder Springs and wanted to move closer to their kids, who live in Alpharetta, but they also wanted the social life an active adult community could provide. Fred found The Orchards on the internet. They bought the last unit available for about $305,000; first one on the left closest to the road.
“We love it where we are,” Pam said.
Almost a year later, this past May, Pam and Fred discovered they might lose their home. Pam said Fred had been pushing for a traffic signal to be put in at the Orchards’ entrance at the intersection with Fowler Road. He contacted the Georgia Department of Transportation, which said a signal couldn’t be considered until after a $32 million widening project along that section of Atlanta Highway was complete. Fred asked to see the plans.
“That’s where we found out that the right-of-way was coming right up to our front porch,” Pam said, “which meant that (GDOT) would have to take out our front sidewalk. And that’s when they said they would take the houses.
Pam added: “I was devasted.”
The Blacks and the owners of seven other homes expected to be lost due to the widening project had their concerns allayed Tuesday in a meeting with GDOT officials at the Fowler Park Recreation Center.
GDOT presented revised plans for the widening project to more than 100 residents of The Orchards that would save the eight homes, as well as avoid any impact to the community’s retention pond, by eliminating the left turn-out maneuver from the community and removing the dedicated right turn lane into the community to preserve a safe right-of-way sight distance coming out of the development.
Over the hour-and-a-half meeting, residents asked 23 questions of GDOT’s representatives through Richard D’Alberto, president of the community’s recently-established HOA. A retired hospital CEO from Greenville, S.C., D’Alberto helped lead the effort to pressure GDOT into changing the widening project plans. The most effective method was contacting state Rep. Wes Cantrell (R-Woodstock).
D’Alberto said they explained to Cantrell the unique circumstances of the potential displaced homeowners. A husband in one of the families has dementia, Pam Black said. Another, she said, has a husband with Parkinson’s; they invested money to outfit the home with grab bars and extra-wide doorways. Most had been living in their home for barely a year.
Cantrell talked with GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry, who ordered the plans be revised.
D’Alberto was pleased with the result.
“What I heard was the homes were not going to be affected, our retention pond wasn’t going to be affected, and that was No. 1,” D’Alberto said.
How things came to this remained somewhat murky. According to Krystal Stovall-Dixon, assistant program delivery engineer with GDOT, the widening project was first programmed in January 2011. Big Creek LLC purchased the property for The Orchards in October 2014. A month later, GDOT set the alignment for the proposed widening project, according to GDOT media relations specialist Natalie Dale.
“At that time, the particulars of the Orchards development were not known to GDOT,” Dale said.
The first residents of The Orchards moved in two years ago during the development’s initial phase. One of those was Jose Young, a retired civil engineer. He led a committee of residents to study the widening project and its impact on The Orchards.
Young believes GDOT had several opportunities to “flag” the potential situation, particularly when the developer received permits to put turn lanes in and out of the community.
Stovall-Dixon acknowledged all parties involved – from the developer to the county to the state – could have communicated better.
“Could there have been better coordination? Absolutely,” Stovall-Dixon said. “Our road project and the developer’s building, it was going on at the same time. I can’t really speculate. GDOT has to give permits. The county has to give permits. I just hope in the future we all do a better job of communicating.”
That answer satisfied D’Alberto.
“I wasn’t out to say, ‘You made a mistake, and let’s get’em,’” D’Alberto said. “Where was the miscommunication, how did it happen and what do we need to do to fix it?”
And it satisfied Pam Black too. More work remains. Dale said the proposed design will require an additional six months of design analysis based on feedback from utility providers and new traffic demands in the area from the opening of Denmark High School. That gives hope the traffic signal Fred Black pushed for is on the horizon.
Black said she can put up with the adjusted traffic pattern coming in and out of the community, and with losing some of their home’s landscaping.
“I have my house, and things could be so much worse,” Pam said. “So I’m cautiously optimistic. I just don’t want to lose my house.”