A decision to keep a half acre of unusable property on the former Russell Corp. campus instead of swapping it in exchange for drainage work could cost the City of Alexander City $22,000.
Proponents said the proposal would enhance city land, make it more marketable to developers and help Kenneth Ledbetter, who asked for the half acre, go forward with a $1 million investment to build 250 storage units on his property located near Central Avenue and Lee Street.
“It was an eyesore and you’d think (the city council would) support you,” Ledbetter said. “Not many people are standing in line to spend $1 million out there. My wife thinks I’ve lost my mind.”
But councilmember Bobby Tapley contends the city did not cause the drainage problems on and around the site and dirt was improperly moved from city property without the council’s permission.
“I don’t think the city should give away a half acre of land when the neighboring property owner benefitted,” Tapley said, referring to Ledbetter. “There’s probably been at least $30,000 worth of dirt hauled over to improve the neighboring property. I just don’t feel comfortable giving city property away that citizens and taxpayers paid for to benefit somebody who has already benefitted from dirt being removed from city property.”
Mayor Tommy Spraggins tried to untangle the half acre from the removal of dirt and crushed concrete on nearby property at the last council meeting.
“Bobby’s got some good points but I think this ordinance does not address what Bobby is talking about,” Spraggins said. “I don’t disagree with you Bobby but that’s not what this is about.”
At that June 3 meeting, the city council decided not to take action on a proposal to declare .46 acres of city property surplus and give it to Ledbetter in exchange for splitting the cost of materials to finish a large drainage ditch on the property line between three acres already owned by Ledbetter and 3½ acres owned by the city. The motion died for lack of a second.
There is little doubt the city will be forced to complete and cover the deep ditch if only to protect itself from possible lawsuits; the only uncertainty is how much it will cost.
The ditch would drain three parcels in the area of Central Avenue and Lee Street, including the 3½ acres owned by the city, because leaving it open will incur maintenance costs and expose the city to liability should anyone be injured by falling into the ditch which contains chunks of concrete, bricks and exposed rebar.
Council debate over the offer got contentious at one meeting when councilmember Eric Brown said contractor Roy Granger, who sold the city 11.25 acres at the site for $275,000 in February and was contracted to clear it of debris, was “stealing dirt” to improve Ledbetter’s property. Brown later apologized to Granger for his remarks, saying he was misunderstood.
Alexander City Community Development director Al Jones said Ledbetter offered to split the cost of materials with the city — about $9,000 apiece — to finish the ditch he has completed halfway down the property line. Granger, who cut the ditch, said he gave the city a rough estimate of $27,000 to complete it, including materials, and have it drain onto Ledbetter’s property. With that deal the city would pay approximately $18,000 to finish the project.
But because the council allowed the proposal to die, the city will have to pay $22,000 more than that — about $40,000 — to finish the project in house. That includes tearing up and repairing Russell Road to drain water past the old Russell ash pit instead of onto Ledbetter’s property.
“We’ve got an estimate of $40,000 if we decide to do it,” Spraggins said. “And if we do, it won’t be until next fiscal year.”
That’s because it’s not in the fiscal year 2019 budget.
City public works director Gerard Brewer said the $40,000 estimate includes materials, labor and equipment except for asphalt and placing the asphalt.
“We’d put the bedding in for the pipe, put in the pipe and go across Russell Road,” Brewer said. “We’d have to tear the road up and fix it. If we left it like it is, it would be forever a maintenance issue.”
Brown wants to keep the half acre and said completing the ditch isn’t urgent.
“I’d rather keep the land,” Brown said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with money. If the proper thing to do is go under the road then we should do that. For what we paid for that land, we shouldn’t give it away. That’s not the only open ditch in the city and it’s not the most pressing issue for the city right now.”
Irritated over ‘roadblocks’
Ledbetter, who owns barbecue businesses on the Auburn University campus and in Alexander City, said he planned to invest nearly $1 million to build 250 storage units on his three acres but can’t until the drainage issue is resolved.
Ledbetter said late mayor Jim Nabors informally agreed to give him the half acre in exchange for the drainage work pending council approval. The ordinance the council didn’t vote on said Ledbetter spent more than $20,000 of personal funds to address drainage issues that also affect adjoining city property.
“The .46 acres on the back corner drains the water,” Ledbetter said. “The mayor said, ‘We’ll give you that half acre.’ It’s not any good to anybody. I wanted possession of it because anybody who builds on the other lot, they can’t change the drainage flow. This would benefit all three property owners — the city, me and Speake (Real Estate), who owns the six acres in front of the courthouse annex. That water has to be controlled by the three landowners.”
Ledbetter is frustrated because he said the council hasn’t asked him about the proposal.
“What irritates me the most is for three or four years the city council has complained about cleaning up Russell and then they throw up roadblocks like this,” he said. “I’ve got a $1 million project with 250 storage units on hold now. But not one councilmember has contacted me from the start. I’ve talked to Tommy and Al and I think (council president Tim) Funderburk came out and looked.
“Bobby Tapley says I’m the one who caused the (drainage) problem but he never spoke to me about it. Eric Brown said things in the meeting about stealing dirt but he never bothered to stop and talk to me about it. None of them know what I am trying to build.”
Brown said Ledbetter should have come to the council with his plans.
“My contention is there is a process,” Brown said. “Kenneth should have come to us before he did anything. We’re willing to help any business but it’s got to be done in the right process.”
Getting down in the dirt
Chances for the deal’s approval frayed when Tapley took exception to what he called a “gentleman’s agreement” between Nabors and a contractor for the gravel byproduct of pulverized concrete to be hauled off city property and sold, and dirt being hauled off city property and put on adjoining property. Tapley didn’t use their names but the contractor is Granger and the adjoining property owner is Ledbetter.
Jones said the initial agreement between Nabors and Granger was adjusted in a spirit of cooperation and sensibility.
“The original agreement was for all of that rubble to be moved across Russell Road to the ash pit,” Jones said. “Mr. Granger came back to the mayor and said, ‘If I haul all that gravel in a dump truck across the road and dump it across the road then I have to come back to it again and load it up. So every time I move it, it’s that much more out of my pocket. Can I leave it on the side of the road?’ And Mayor Nabors said yes.
“It was a verbal agreement to allow him to store it on our property until he had it sold, which I don’t know if this has any effect on anything we’re talking about because those piles are shrinking every day. I understand a customer has purchased the rest of it.”
No piles remain at the site.
Granger said Nabors agreed to let him temporarily stockpile that material on newly acquired city property with the intent of moving it and selling it but Tapley said the agreement should have been in writing.
“The dirt was removed without council approval,” Tapley said. “It was stated it was a gentlemen’s agreement but the State of Alabama doesn’t recognize a gentleman’s agreement. It’s got to be in writing.”
Tapley initially said the dirt and gravel should have been considered city property because it was on city property when the sale with Granger closed. However, Tapley said he had an outside attorney review the contract and agreed the gravel should not be included in the $275,000 deal with Granger.
“That was my material,” Granger said.
Most of the material came from a nearby 17 acres the city bought from Darryl Saucier of Saucier Investments LLC in August 2017, according to Granger, who said Saucier paid him to clean up the property.
“I took the concrete from there and stockpiled it on my and Saucier’s property,” Granger said. “Then the city showed interest in the 10 or 11 acres behind the (Russell) main office, which was mine. Eighty-five to 90% of the concrete came off that 17 acres over a year ago. Those two huge piles were 200,000-plus tons. I stored it on the property the city just bought. At not one time did the city claim that concrete.”
Apology over remarks
Spraggins is on record saying the city didn’t want the material but Granger thought it ironic Brown, who owns a landscaping business in Alexander City, accused him of “stealing dirt” yet bought a large amount of the pulverized concrete off the site, a purchase Brown verified.
“Eric called me and said he wanted to apologize for what he said,” Granger said. “He said there was a misunderstanding of what he meant. He said in the construction business you’d say ‘stealing’ dirt to mean you were borrowing dirt from one site and moving it to another. I told him I’ve been in this business a long time and you call that a ‘borrow pit’ not a ‘stealing pit.’”
Brown said he didn’t mean to sound accusatory.
“I didn’t mean he was stealing anything,” Brown said. “On the job, I’ll say I’m going to rob or steal dirt from here and put it there. I told Roy, ‘I know you were doing what you were told to do by the mayor.’ But that’s city property and that’s our responsibility.”
The city agreed to buy the 11.25 acres from Granger and pay him $275,000 only after the property was completely clean of debris.
“The contract was for the removal of concrete, not any dirt,” Brown said. “That’s why I said what I did.”
Making the grade
The contract also stipulated the property would be “rough graded to match either the general contour of the land or toward a ‘finish’ design grade rendering it suitable to additional ‘finish’ grading.
Ledbetter said the three acres he wants to build his storage units on were filled with rock, concrete and dirt to help level the land and because the material couldn’t be taken to the city landfill.
“Mayor Nabors agreed to let us get dirt off the lot beside us to cover it up,” Ledbetter said. “This was agreed to by Roy, myself and the mayor to bury the rock and take the dirt off the lot. But the city bought the property before it was finished. I spent $10,000 out of pocket to fill the city’s side of the property and bring it up to the same level as mine. I told the mayor I would do that.”
Granger said he borrowed dirt from several places on the site to grade it.
“I was taking dirt off the half acre and on (Ledbetter’s) three acres plus completing the city property and tying it into the elevation on his lot,” Granger said. “The city didn’t want the three acres in the middle that had been filled in because you couldn’t really build anything on it.”
Tapley said a natural drain existed on the 11.25 acres before the city bought it but filling it in caused drainage problems.
“That hole was there and the contractor filled that hole in with rubble and that is the reason it’s in the condition it is,” Tapley said. “I don’t think the city should be liable for it. The city didn’t cause that problem, the contractor did by filling that hole up with rubble and then hauling dirt over it and covering the rubble up.”
Jones said no rubble was used to fill in property on the city’s side of the ditch.
“What has been filled in on our side was filled in with our dirt and brought up to the finished grade as referenced in the contract,” he said. “The improvements were made after the purchase (by the city) and they brought our property up. We have benefitted substantially from the work that has been done there.”
Not giving up
Ledbetter and Granger said they plan to address the council at its meeting Monday and Spraggins said he hopes the proposal can be reintroduced and voted on.
“I want to see how the meeting goes,” Spraggins said. “They both say they are going to come. I want to see what kind of feedback we get. It ought to come from the council. A councilmember needs to say, ‘I want to reintroduce this.’ I hope the council will reconsider it for the benefit of Alexander City. I don’t want to give up on it. I’d like to see the council at least vote on it.”
But with six councilmembers, a possible vote could result in a 3-3 tie and keep the status quo.
“It’s nothing against anybody, it’s the way it went down,” Brown said. “It didn’t go through proper channels. It opens the door for people to say, ‘If they didn’t do that properly, what else have they done improperly?’ It’s all water under the bridge. I just want to make sure it’s done right. That’s all I care about.”