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Watson Road project not ‘high priority’ for resident

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Chris Schmelz

I am having a hard time even putting into words how disappointed I am about the whole process of how the Watson Road connector project was approved (last) week at the (Harrison County) commissioners’ meeting.

First, I want to state that this has nothing to do if you are a Democrat or a Republican. It has everything to do with the difference between right and wrong. I would like to share my experience, and you can make you own decision from there.

I have lived in Harrison County all of my 40 years. My first 24 were in Lanesville, and the last 16 have been at my current residence in Laconia. It is a small farm that my wife has lived at her whole life. We have three children who have always lived at this same farm.

I have never really been involved with politics. With three kids in school, a full-time job and running a small farm, I have focused my time elsewhere. However, (last) week I have been thrown right in the middle of it.

I attended my first-ever commissioners’ meeting this past Tuesday, Feb. 18. My wife was made aware at 10 that morning that there was going to be something brought up about the Watson Road connector project and that we probably should attend.

For those not familiar with this project, it is a proposal to connect State Road 11 to State Road 135. If you have not heard about this, then you are probably in the majority of citizens in Harrison County, from my research.

This is an interest to me, because this connector road will more than likely be right at the end of my driveway. My wife and I tried to find out where this meeting was posted and what the agenda was. After looking at their website and searching on the internet, we found nothing. We finally called the county government office to find out for sure that there was a public commissioners’ meeting that evening, and we were told yes.

My oldest son had a basketball game that night, which we rarely miss, so I was nominated to go to the meeting and my wife would go to the game. I assumed that if this project was even brought up, that this would be just the start of a long process to pass it through the county government.

Boy, was I ever wrong about that.

After taking my seat for this meeting, I realized there were some familiar faces in the crowd. However, very few of them were from the area of where this project will have a direct impact.

After sitting through the first part of the meeting, they finally got to the discussion of the Watson Road connector. This was being presented by Kevin Russel, our former county engineer. He resigned his position but has stayed on as a consultant until a new county engineer can be hired. He currently works for an engineering firm that does a lot of design work for (the Indiana Dept. of Transportation). This was the first red flag for me. At a minimum, this is a conflict of interest.

He went on to talk about this project and how he has been working on this for many years. He kept referring to it as a “high priority” project. He had brought along some of his supporters for the project, and they got up and said their piece.

When the commissioners asked if there was anyone else who would like to speak, I was waiting for someone to speak up. I then realized that there was no one else going to speak out against this. I was not prepared to speak that night. However, I knew that if I didn’t, no one else would.

This is already long, so I will not go over everything I said.

My main points were that I am not for this project, I don’t consider this a “high priority” project and I think that there should be more community involvement for a project of this size. I was told that there had been years of research and many meetings before this. I was never given a clear answer of why this was a “high priority” project or how many people they had involved in this process. After I said my piece, (Harrison County) Councilman Gary Byrne did get up and back me up. I would like to thank him for doing that.

After listening to Kevin Russel’s presentation, I found out that there would be no further public involvement. If the commissioners passed it that night, then it was a done deal. To my surprise, I listened to all three commissioners approve  this.

So, here are the facts that all Harrison County residents need to understand:

Watson Road connector is approximately five miles of road.

It would be approximately a $34 million project paid for by INDOT.

In exchange, there will be 32.3 miles of state highway that Harrison County will now be in charge of maintaining: S.R. 337 from the Corydon town limits to S.R. 11, S.R. 11 from the intersection of S.R. 337 to Mauckport and S.R. 111 from the intersection of S.R. 211 to the dead end. This will all become county roads that we, the taxpaying citizens, will have to now maintain.

So, on Tuesday night, a consultant and three commissioners passed this with no county engineer to review. Technically, there is no money being spent by the county for this project, so it doesn’t have to be approved by the council either. This is a project that will affect many people and involve eminent domain. From the research my wife and I have done since the meeting, most landowners have no idea this is happening.

I would recommend that everyone view the 40 transportation plan that was referred to many times in that meeting. This is not the only project on there. You can make your own decision on what they consider “high priority” projects. You can also go to the Harrison County Government website and view the meeting. I would also recommend that you attend the next commissioners’ meeting on Monday, March 2, at 8:30 a.m.

I have had mixed emotions all week since attending this meeting, from anger to sadness to confusion, even helplessness.

The next day I had to explain to my son why I wasn’t at his game. Then, I had to explain to him what eminent domain was. He then said, “Can they really just take your land?” I told them that they have to pay you for it, but, yes, they can take your land. He then said, “So, if I look out our kitchen window, I might see a highway with cars going by?” With a sad heart, I said, yes, that field I love to look out over may be a highway with cars and trucks flying by someday.