Willie Gray, publisher of Citronelle’s weekly Call News and a recent candidate for state office, received free labor and materials from the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) to access private property he is developing, according to state records. But in spite of department rules indicating otherwise, both the state agency and Gray contend the work was done in accordance with regulations. Further, a representative from ALDOT said the agency frequently performs the same service statewide.
Gray, who narrowly lost election to House District 102 in 2018, is currently building a home on roughly 30 acres he owns along U.S. Highway 45 in North Mobile County, where twice last year, he submitted permit applications with ALDOT to construct turnouts to provide access between the property and the road, across the public right of way. In February, ALDOT provided labor and materials to construct the northern entrance and in September, the agency did the same for a second entrance a few hundred feet to the south, creating a second driveway for the home.
Work reports indicate the second round of labor involved five ALDOT vehicles or machines, six to seven state employees over a period of two days, more than 18 tons of aggregate soil base and nearly 39 cubic yards of clay. The total cost of payroll and equipment equaled $6,175.65 for the second turnout, according to ALDOT, but the price of soil and clay was not enumerated. For both turnouts, Gray didn’t have to reimburse a penny.
ALDOT’s permit manual defines turnouts as “access points to public roads from private, publicly owned and commercial facilities. Since turnouts affect drainage and safety characteristics of the highway, a permit is required to ensure that the location and construction methods are acceptable.”
For private entrances, the manual advises that “property owners will furnish the necessary side drain pipe (culvert) at their own expense” and “for each individual residence, farm field and small church, the department may install pipe and backfill up to 30 feet wide for one driveway with a maximum width of 20 feet.”
Further, the manual states, “if the applicant requests, and receives approval for an additional driveway … the applicant will be responsible for the complete construction and total cost of its installation.”
In an interview in November, ALDOT Region Operations Administrator Jay Palmer reiterated that requirement.
“Say I was a farmer. I had 1,600 feet [on the highway], I had multiple pastures on the state highway and I needed access to get to my north pasture,” Palmer offered. “We would grant him an additional driveway, but that driveway should be at his expense and would be at his expense. We initially do the installation on the primary driveway; any additional driveways would be at their expense.”
The county’s mapping software indicates Gray’s property has roughly 1,200 feet of frontage on the highway and at a glance, appears to have more timber than any other agricultural or pastoral use. Asked for clarification, ALDOT Public Information Specialist Katelyn Turner later explained because Gray’s property is subdivided — he has three contiguous parcels of roughly 10 acres each — “each driveway installation was performed on a separate piece of property and still within the permit manual.”
Yet, when reached for comment earlier this week, Gray himself gave a different explanation altogether.
“One turnout was a safety factor because it’s on a hill,” he said. “Everything there is on the state right of way and everything was done according to the law.”
Gray offered to show his permits and receipts for the pipes and any driveway materials he purchased for installation beyond the public right of way, but acknowledged ALDOT installed both turnouts at no cost. He said he contacted ALDOT to initiate both requests, and was under the impression individuals or private contractors cannot perform the work on their own.
“You can’t do work on a public right of way,” he said. “They have to call and get the location of phone lines, water lines, utility lines … If I were to do that or pay a contractor to do that and something was damaged on the state right of way, who do you think is responsible for it? That is the situation you have there.”
Through a separate but similar application process, ALDOT does in fact allow contractors and individuals to install their own turnouts at their own expense, so long as the work meets the agency’s engineering specifications and is approved by a district manager. In any case, ALDOT may not do work beyond the public right of way on private property, and Gray said any suggestion the agency installed his driveway up to his house is false.
“All they do is install the pipe on the public right of way,” he said. “They can’t go outside of that or it would be against the law.”
Beyond the right of way, Gray said he purchased his own materials and installed “80 to 90 percent” of his two driveways himself.
Turner said ALDOT’s 10-county Southwest Region performed 52 turnout installations last year which, if priced the same as Gray’s work order, would total some $321,000 of uncompensated costs.
Alternatively, Mobile County’s Public Works Department also has a process for driveway permits, regulating four separate conditions for county installation, landowner installation, commercial installation or temporary installation. For landowners, the county will install one driveway access for new single-family homes only, provided they are on county-maintained rights of way. The city of Mobile does not perform driveway access installation, according to a spokesperson, but charges a $51 application fee for a permit.
Gray said if the state charged him a fee, he would have paid it.
“That is up to the state,” he said. “But I paid everything that is required of me and if I would have been required to pay more, I wouldn’t have had a choice.”
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