Annie Hamm moved to southern Franklin County in 1982 to escape the new homes and increasing traffic in North Raleigh. But the growth followed her.
A residential subdivision went up behind her 1-acre property in the Harris Crossroads community, where she lives in a one-story brick ranch house. A couple years ago, a Dollar General store opened across the road.
Now the state wants to widen U.S. 401 through her living room to accommodate the rising number of families spilling north out of Wake County.
Hamm, 85, and her family have been in back-and-forth negotiations with the state Department of Transportation for more than a year. From the start, the family wanted more money than what the state was offering for about half the property.
Their story represents what has been happening for decades in the Triangle, as rural farmland turns into shopping centers, office parks and subdivisions. With that growth comes more and wider roads that also eat up land.
For Hamm, losing part of her property means losing three decades of memories. She and her husband, who died 13 years ago, brought a tree sapling with them from their Raleigh home and planted it in the backyard.
Her son, Lee, continues to operate a small greenhouse business on the property. Neighbors stop by for vegetables.
“I thought I was going to live here the rest of my life,” Hamm said.
Last summer, DOT offered Hamm $177,725 for the part of her property needed for the road project, including her house. It offered $181,175 for the entire property.
The state also offered Hamm $7,275 in “relocation benefits” to help with the move, according to DOT spokesman Steve Abbott.
Hamm, along with two of her children, said they wanted $250,000, and they planned to put a modular home on the back side of the property. The state then offered $215,000 and later increased it to $225,000.
DOT ends up paying more than its initial “fair market value” appraisal about half the time, said Steve Grimes, right-of-way unit manager. Sometimes property owners present a higher appraisal, and sometimes the state doesn’t want to bother with legal wranglings.
“There is room in our system for negotiations,” Grimes said.
Only about 1 percent of land-acquisition cases end up in court, Grimes said, but more property owners over the years have turned to lawyers for help.
The Hamm family has been fighting the state without an attorney. Lee Hamm, 57, told the DOT in January his mother would accept $225,000 for part of the property, as long as she could have crews build a driveway off nearby Tarboro Road.
Then things got more complicated. Lee Hamm says half the property isn’t big enough to accommodate a backup septic system, which is required. So he would have to clear trees from the back side of the site to make room. Or the family could hook onto Franklin County’s sewer system.
Neither option would be cheap. Lee Hamm said he wants more guidance from DOT to make it all happen, and his frustration has continued to rise.
“I was just trying to get some help with that stuff,” he said. “I can’t just make magic happen and move right in.”
In May, without a firm agreement in place, the state filed paperwork to condemn the property. DOT deposited the initial offer amount – $177,725 – at the Franklin County Courthouse. The money is now available to the family.
DOT told the Hamms last month the $225,000 offer still stands as long as an agreement is reached, according to Abbott. The state also offered the Hamms the option of renting the house until it is torn down.
I’m not going to pick sides here and say who is right or wrong. The state’s offer does seem fair. The property has a tax value of about $97,000.
But how do you put a price on an 85-year-old woman’s desires to spend the rest of her life in the home she shared with her husband?
“All along, all I asked them to do is show Mama some compassion,” Lee Hamm said.
Chuck Lollar, an eminent domain attorney with the Edwards Kirby law firm in Raleigh, said the state’s system isn’t always perfect. He reached out to DOT after Lee Hamm contacted him, but the family hasn’t asked him to represent them.
“The first concern I had, they were taking enough of her property to displace her,” Lollar said of Annie Hamm. “Doing that to an 85-year-old lady – that can be fatal.”
Lollar said it can be tough for people to know what to do when the state wants to take their property. In the 1970s, he said, DOT wanted a piece of a property he owned in Onslow County. He negotiated a higher offer but didn’t learn until later that the part of the property he still owned wasn’t big enough for a drainage system.
So he couldn’t sell it.
“The value of that lot went to next to nothing,” Lollar said. “I learned the hard way.”