Home on the highway: Residents along Hwy 174 face uncertainty over property acquisitions
November 1, 2017
With income from their goat milk soap and lotion business, Shannon Friedberg and her husband Steve Nightingale plan to grow old, comfortably and quietly, on their Nevada County farm.
A self-sufficient, rural lifestyle has always appealed to them, and their six acres of land along Highway 174, where they've built a milking parlor and live with two dozen goats who have plenty of open space to roam, is a testament to that.
But the couple is worried the character of their quiet home may soon change when the California Department of Transportation widens the highway in front of their property as part of a safety improvement project.
Caltrans plans to realign several curves and add 20 feet of "clear recovery zone" beyond the lane on each side of the highway, which includes an eight foot shoulder and an additional 12 feet of area clear of any trees, poles or other obstructions. The modifications, the department says, will help prevent collisions by providing more space for errant vehicles to recover.
The project is slated to take place along a two-mile stretch of Highway 174 between Maple Way and You Bet Road and will require the state to purchase pieces of dozens of roadside properties — 49 in total — including Friedberg and Nightingale's.
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The couple isn't sure exactly how much of their property will be impacted. Though they've known about the Caltrans project for more than two years, the department has yet to give roadside homeowners any precise information about property acquisitions beyond an initial notification. But they speculate a large chunk of their front yard, which is where many of their goats live, will be on the chopping block.
"We don't want to be dry lot farmers," Friedberg said. "We want to continue to raise pasture animals."
She's worried that the size of her property could be reduced significantly if Caltrans follows through on its plan to increase the width of the highway, including the recovery zone, by more than double its current size in some places.
She's also worried her front yard could become a noisy thoroughfare. The trees in front of her property provide a noise buffer from the sounds of the highway, and those are slated to be cut down, she said.
Like many of their neighbors, Friedberg and Nightingale have joined Save Hwy 174, a group that formed in opposition to the safety project. Some members of the group fear that straighter curves and wider lanes may encourage motorists to speed, which could, in turn, reduce the safety of the roadway rather than improve it. They say Caltrans is planning to turn a scenic, rural highway into a full-blown freeway.
For Richard Shaddeau, another homeowner whose property borders the highway, the worst part is not knowing.
Shaddeau has a pond, two wells and two springs on his land, which are all situated close to the road. He has no idea how much of his property could become the state's, but he can only expect the worst, he said.
"The hardest part of this entire thing is that they won't say how much they're going to take," he said. "I don't know."
The uncertainty has impacted his decisions as a homeowner.
"Why would you put a new roof on your house if you don't know whether you're going to be able to even keep it?" he said. "Why paint it? Why install a new deck?"
His house is so close to the roadway, he said, he fears it will become part of the clear recovery zone.
Shaddeau isn't against improving the safety of the highway, though.
A need for improvement?
According to Caltrans, collisions in the project area occur at a rate that far exceeds the average for similar types of highways in the state.
The issue needs to be addressed, Shaddeau said. But judging by the preliminary design presentations he's seen Caltrans staff give, he thinks the department's way of increasing safety is too extreme.
Rather than building a 20-foot recovery zone, Shaddeau would rather see Caltrans increase, or, in some areas, create the roadway's shoulder, he said.
"I'd be happy to give up some of my property for that," he said.
According to Caltrans Public Information Officer Liza Whitmore, the right-of-way acquisition process is slated to begin late this year.
Caltrans staff presented their safety project to the Nevada County Board of Supervisors in October and received a barrage of negative feedback from community members during public comment. According to Whitmore, Caltrans agreed at that meeting to work with representatives from Save Hwy 174 in an effort to address the group's concerns.
The department is still working on a final design for the project, she said, adding that staff has already modified some plans based on community input.
"We are looking forward to meeting with the Save Hwy 174 group in the coming weeks to discuss further areas of compromise," Whitmore said in an email. "They acknowledge the need for safety improvements but maintain the 'footprint' of the project is still too large. Caltrans knows the project is necessary and will negotiate with the group and individual property owners on modifications that do not detract from the needed safety improvements. It is our hope that we will be able to agree on a mutually satisfactory solution to improve safety on Highway 174."
Caltrans, she said, is following the blueprints for proven safety measures that help reduce a pattern of "run off the road" collisions.
"We have no choice but to build (this project)," she said. "Once we identify a safety issue on the roadway, we have to fix it."
Caltrans staff estimates the project will cost $28 million and will be funded by the State Highway Operation and Protection Program.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Pera, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4231.
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