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Eminent domain a factor in delay of Exit 74 interchange project in East Lyme

East Lyme — An extensive eminent domain process is one of the reasons behind a two-year delay in the state's large-scale plan to address safety and traffic concerns at the Interstate 95 Exit 74 interchange with Route 161.

Connecticut Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Nursick said the $142 million project, which is expected to take three years to complete and originally was slated to begin this year, has been pushed out to spring 2023.

In addition to an acquisition process spanning more than 20 properties, Nursick said the delay stems from the need for an updated survey related to recent improvements by the Costco developer, additional time for hydraulic engineering and modeling, and more coordination with regulatory agencies and utilities.

Owners of the Starlight Inn and Mobil gas station on Flanders Road — each property a "total take" in eminent domain parlance — are appealing the DOT's motion to seize the parcels in their entirety, court filings show. Both owners are asking for more money.

There are 13 properties on a DOT project list for partial acquisition and easements. An additional six properties will be affected, though the agency is still figuring out to what extent.

A DOT project update specified the work will extend just over a half-mile on Route 161 from Industrial Park Road North to about 500 feet south of Route 1. The project will cover I-95 for 1.3 miles from Exit 73 to just south of Exit 75.

The state last December took ownership of the Mobil station based on a $1.92 million offer, according to the state Judicial Branch and local assessor's records. It took ownership of the Starlight Inn based on a $1.26 million offer in February.

East Lyme assessor's records show the gas station, formerly owned by East Lyme Re LLC, was last appraised in 2016 at $941,300. The motel, owned at the time by Star-Inns LLC, was appraised at $1.05 million.

Nursick said the DOT commissions its own appraisals to determine the fair market value of each property taken.

According to federal appraisal standards, fair market value is the amount the property would have sold for "after a reasonable exposure time on the open competitive market, from a willing and reasonably knowledgeable seller to a willing and reasonably knowledgeable buyer, with neither acting under any compulsion to buy or sell, giving due consideration to all available economic uses of the property."

The state remains the owner of record on each property, even though the purchase price is being appealed through the courts, according to Nursick.

Starlight Inn resident Chris Fournier said last week the motel is currently home to just under two dozen people. The motel is well known as the location of a 2018 murder and numerous drug and prostitution busts over the years.

Fournier told The Day that the people living in the motel have not paid rent since March, after the previous owners were replaced by the state.

Fournier said the ice makers are gone and residents have to clean up after themselves, but the state turned DirectTV back on after it had been shut off by the previous owners.

Several residents said they had received offers in the $1,600 to $1,700 range to relocate. Fournier, who said he moved in last September, said he hasn't received an offer.

Nursick could not by press time provide additional information about the DOT's relocation process or timeline for demolition.

Over at the East Lyme Driving Range, business owner Bill Simons said the DOT has plans to seize about seven acres of the 29 acres he's been leasing from the owners of True Value for six years.

A planned frontage road to connect southbound ramps to Flanders Road goes right through the property, ending on Route 161 next to True Value.

"It's probably going to put me out of business," Simons said.

He said the existing golf building will be knocked down and the range would have to be relocated on the remaining property, if there's enough space. He said the cost of installing barrier netting to keep the balls from landing on the new frontage road would be exorbitant.

The small golfing business is turning a profit for the first time this year, according to its owner — "and it may or may not be the last year of operations."

The project is designed to ease congestion and improve safety and traffic operations in the area. The DOT said there are "higher than normal" crash rates at interchange 74 and on Flanders Road in the vicinity of Burger King.

Simons said the project is "overblown," describing it as "out of scale to what needs to be done" to address safety concerns.

According to DOT documents, the highway is operating "at or near capacity." The data shows 74,600 vehicles per day on I-95 and 16,700 to 25,700 cars per day on Route 161. There are also significant weaving maneuvers occurring at closely spaced on- and off-ramps and a lack of turning lanes on 161, the state said.

Among the proposed improvements are:

  • A new "loop" style on-ramp to I-95 north for vehicles traveling south on Route 161 to improve congestion.
  • An auxiliary lane between exits 74 and 75 on northbound and southbound lanes of I-95 that will allow merging cars a longer distance to change lanes.
  • Replacement of the I-95 bridge over Route 161, which will allow the widening of Route 161 below with turning lanes. The project includes sidewalks and wider shoulders to accommodate cyclists on part of Route 161.
  • Widening of I-95 in the area to allow for a potential third travel lane in the future, if the state widens the highway.
  • Relocated commuter parking lot with signalized access.

e.regan@theday.com

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