ELIZABETHTOWN — After an eight-year battle to save the family home where she was born, Pat McGehee and husband Richard are hurrying to pack their belongings, and have their house, garage and barn jacked up and moved to the other side of their farm.
The smokehouse and chicken coop have been moved, and the windmill is ready to go. The McGehees hope they can get it all done before the Hardin County sheriff arrives with an eviction notice and the state Transportation Cabinet comes with a bulldozer.
The McGehee home is in the path of a $20 million project to extend Elizabethtown's Ring Road two miles, from U.S. 62 to the Western Kentucky Parkway. Hardin County officials call the road essential for Elizabethtown's future. But a judge in Frankfort called it "patently unnecessary" and a "political add-on" to the state's 2008 road plan.
The McGehees have argued that the road's route could be shifted slightly to go through the open field in front of their home and outbuildings or the open field behind them. The state refused.
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It also hasn't mattered that the McGehees got the property listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a rare, little-changed example of a Depression-era Kentucky farm complex. It also was notable because the farm was run by a woman, Fannie Harrison, who was Pat McGehee's great-aunt.
"It's so unnecessary for the road to go through us," said Richard McGehee, a retired state environmental inspector.
For Pat McGehee, a retired teacher, it is also heartbreaking. "This is everything to me," she said. "It's family. It's home."
Ring Road loops from U.S. 62 around Elizabethtown, but local officials want to extend it a little farther on each end — connecting on the east to Interstate 65 and on the west to the Western Kentucky Parkway. The extension would reduce truck traffic through Elizabethtown, they say. And it would open farmland for commercial and industrial development.
When the route for the west extension was announced in 2001, it went through the field in front of the McGehees' farm. Later, though, the route was changed to go through the McGehees' home. The couple objected, but officials wouldn't budge. So they filed suit in Franklin Circuit Court in Frankfort, challenging the state's right to condemn their property on grounds that the road was unnecessary.
After reviewing evidence, Judge Phillip Shepherd agreed with the McGehees but said he lacked jurisdiction. "The testimony and legislative history of the six-year road plan established that this project has never been supported by any traffic or engineering study by the Department of Highways," Shepherd wrote in his opinion. "Rather, it was a political add-on."
Hardin County judges saw things differently, and the state Court of Appeals agreed that the state had the right to condemn the property. The state Supreme Court declined to review the case.
The McGehees' attorney, Hank Graddy of Midway, also argues that the Transportation Cabinet and Army Corps of Engineers haven't done reviews of the road's effect on streams it would cross. The state responded, he said, by adding several hundred thousand dollars to the project for bridges to avoid a review.
The state says the current route through the McGehees' farm is necessary because the original route in front of their house is in a flood plain.
As the McGehees run out of options, they have begun investing about $50,000 to move their home and outbuildings to the other side of their farm, where they would be flanked by the new road and the parkway.
The couple would lose only eight of their farm's 85 acres before the road turns off their property — but it is the eight acres where all of their buildings were. A court-appointed commissioner valued the property at $260,000.
A trial is scheduled for October to determine compensation. The McGehees want more money, Graddy said, and the state has indicated it wants to pay less.
The McGehees' last hope is the property's recent historical designation. They have asked the National Trust for Historic Preservation to petition the court to intervene. The group Preservation Kentucky is trying to drum up public support.
"It's a sad situation," said Rachel Kennedy, Preservation Kentucky's executive director. "Every time I show somebody the map of how the road would go right through a National Trust property, they say, 'Who hates these people?'"