'Sweet Home Alabama' town drops legal battle

AP News
Posted: Jan 02, 2015 6:26 PM

EUFAULA, Ala. (AP) — The town featured in the movie "Sweet Home Alabama" will soon have a major four-lane highway going through its scenic historic district.

The Eufaula City Council decided Friday to drop its legal battle against the nearly $1.3 million project by the Alabama Department of Transportation. The decision clears the way for work to begin immediately.

An opponent of the highway widening project said it will destroy the character of the historic district that brings thousands of tourists to Eufaula. Doug Purcell, spokesman of the Save North Eufaula Avenue Coalition, said people don't want to spend the money to maintain a Southern mansion and have a four-lane highway adjoining their front yard. He predicted the street will become commercial within 10 years.

"Eufaula's special character will soon be compromised forever. The City of Eufaula will never be the same as it becomes another Anywhere USA community," Purcell said.

A spokesman for the Alabama Department of Transportation, Tony Harris, said construction signs will go up Monday and then work will begin trimming tree limbs to make sure they aren't hit by oversized trucks on a widened road.

U.S. 431, a major route down the east side of the state to Florida Panhandle beaches, is four lanes from Interstate 85 in Opelika to the Florida line except for a 0.8-mile stretch through Eufaula's historic district of Southern mansions. The homes were built in the 1800s and early 1900s when the town of 14,500 was a commercial and social center along the Chattahoochee River. The two-lane stretch and its homes were featured in the 2002 movie "Sweet Home Alabama" as Reese Witherspoon character's hometown.

The Department of Transportation says the stretch through the historic district is the busiest two-lane highway in Alabama, and traffic backs up a mile or more on some spring and summer weekends. The Department of Transportation proposed last year to widen the stretch to four lanes by shaving three feet off each side of the medians that divide the two lanes.

Department Director John Cooper says it will cause no damage to the large oak trees that form a canopy over the street, but opponents predict the trees will slowly die due to root damage. Both sides have studies by arborists to support their views.

Town officials and historic preservation groups fought the project with a federal court suit, but they lost Tuesday when a judge ruled the federal courts appear to have no role because no federal money is involved in the project.

The City Council had a special meeting Friday to consider filing suit in state court, but only two of the five members voted to file suit. The cost of continued litigation was a concern.

Based on the construction schedule proposed earlier by the Department of Transportation, the work may not be completed in time for spring break traffic, but it should be done before the main tourist season begins in May.

Some opponents of the highway widening encouraged the state to build a four-lane bypass rather than the widening, but Cooper said that was not affordable.