Black landowners accuse TDOT of offering unfair market value for land

Published: Jun. 2, 2023 at 9:47 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 5, 2023 at 2:43 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Black landowners in West Tennessee are fighting to be fairly compensated for their land. This is part of the new highway that will connect exit 39 on I40 to Blue Oval City in Stanton. The NAACP is stepping in and asking TDOT to be fair.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund sent a letter to TDOT about its process of acquiring land from Black landowners for the construction of the New Blue Oval City Highway Interchange to and from I-40 to Blue Oval City Exit 39. The Defense fund claims that TDOT’s Eminent domain process abuses Black landowners’ constitutional and civil rights.

The letter from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to the Tennessee Department of Transportation is expressing what they’re calling a ‘serious concern’. It’s about the state using eminent domain to acquire farmland from black landowners in West Tennessee. Black farmers say the state is not paying them what their land is actually worth.

Jason Bailey, the assistant counsel for the Legal Defense Fund, said, " Some of the farmers have been sued by the state as part of the eminent domain process.”

Bailey said there is at least one case where a Black farmer was offered thousands of dollars less per acre than a White farmer adjacent to his property.

“You know it seems like the farmers believe that TDOT is really not willing to negotiate,” said Bailey. Fitzgerald Mann the president of the Haywood County branch NAACP told Action News 4 that “some of the offers that the farmers and landowners have received are as low as $3,500 per acre.”

In the nine-page letter to TDOT, LDF worries the construction of the new highway will disproportionately impact black communities. It also says the state is stripping black landowners of their ability to accumulate wealth.

Bailey says most of the farmers in the area DO NOT have a problem with the Blue Oval City project, they just want a fair deal.

“TDOT, we are encouraging them to do more in terms of making sure that they can build the highway in a way that doesn’t run about their civil rights obligations,” said Bailey.

I did reach out to Ford about the issue and a spokesperson said in a statement in part:

“Ford is committed to being a good neighbor and adding to the prosperity and quality of life in every community where we do business, including in West Tennessee. We have encouraged the Tennessee Department of Transportation, which is responsible for public road maintenance and development – including eminent domain scenarios – to meet with impacted property owners and local community groups to quickly reach an equitable resolution.”

Action News 5 did ask TDOT if the Black landowners’ claims are true. A spokesperson from TDOT said in a statement:

TDOT is excited about the new economic opportunities and prosperity Blue Oval City will bring to West Tennessee. While the department makes every effort to avoid private property when maintaining or building existing or future highways, TDOT may be required to make a formal request to purchase individual property for road projects for the best-engineered solution. TDOT follows federal and state law to maintain the standard process for purchasing property at fair market value based on third-party, independent appraisal reports.

The offers made to purchase land for this new road to service Blue Oval City reflect fair market value, as reported by the independent appraisers and required by federal law. Property owners are always given the opportunity to negotiate just as they would with any property offer.

TDOT is working very closely with multiple groups to help assuage any concerns.

The following has been added for additional context: To be very clear, individual property owners are never known until a formal request to purchase land is being conducted. There are well-defined rights under federal law that safeguard property owners from getting less than fair market value while also protecting public funds.

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