Joseph Jackson was worn out.
He and his wife sat helplessly for four years as the state of Indiana seized a chunk of their 80-acre farm, along with some of their neighbors’ properties, to make way for a new section of I-69. The large hilly field where the Jacksons’ quarter horses used to graze was paved over. The horses became too scared to cross the new access road that rose from that pavement. After construction workers installed a drain next to the Jacksons’ house, the basement flooded repeatedly. They awoke at all hours of the night as crews set off blasts that felt like small earthquakes. Finally, Cathy Jackson became so overwhelmed she moved away from the home where her family had lived for more than half a century.
Ty Vinson | IDS
“I can’t take this,” she told Joe one day. “I have to get out of here.”
Now Cathy was gone, living two hours to the south, and her 71-year-old husband was stewing on the front porch of the house he had built with his own hands. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could hang on. He needed to do something — one last attempt to make the world pay attention.
He asked his 21-year-old granddaughter for help. The two found a 4-foot-by-8-foot piece of plywood. He sat next to her with a can of paint, deciding exactly what to say. He gave her the brush, and she started painting the big black letters.
He and his granddaughter planted the sign in the perfect spot, a hillside that would maximize visibility. He needed people to know that if they think they own their land, they don’t.
ANOTHER FAMILY “FARM” DESTROYED BY I-69
Few driving by seemed to care.
Amid the construction cones and the clouds of dust from heavy machinery, the nearly completed interstate cuts through the rolling hills of southern Indiana. Much of the land along the highway once belonged to families like the Jacksons.
Plans to turn State Road 37 into I-69, which will run from Mexico to Canada, have been discussed for decades. Today, after years of construction, Section 5 — running just south of Bloomington to Indian Creek in Morgan County — is almost finished.
An initial private-public partnership — endorsed by then-Gov. Mike Pence — ended in a two-year delay, a potential loss of millions of dollars and headaches for drivers who sat for hours in traffic. A 2016 financial plan estimated the final cost for Section 5 at $476.9 million. A 2017 update will be released at the end of the year.
The landowners whose lives were uprooted know there’s more to the story. Progress, they say, comes with a price.
The state estimated that around 327 acres would be seized to widen the highway or build access roads, according to a 2015 Final Environmental Impact Statement. There would be an estimated total of 137 relocations, including 17 businesses and 119 homes.
A family-owned pumpkin patch closed indefinitely because the new highway consumed too much of its crop. The business sits idle — no more hayrides on crisp fall afternoons, no more children picking the perfect pumpkin for carving, just a “For Sale” sign planted in the front yard. Demolition began on another house before the living room chandelier could be removed. Joseph Jackson swears the chandelier could be seen from the highway for weeks afterward, still hanging until the bulldozers returned.
Property owners were left to deal with state-hired appraisers and construction crews who seemed oblivious to the emotional toll on the families. Repeatedly, the state’s lawyers cited the centuries-old principle of eminent domain, the right of the government to seize private land for public use. They reminded angry landowners that they were being compensated for the property they lost.
For families such as the Jacksons, no amount of money can bring back the memories, the freedom, the solitude.
Joe and Cathy Jackson miss the quiet the most. The darkness of living miles from the nearest streetlight. The stillness that hung over the fields before the sun rose, and the orange glow of sunsets that silhouetted their farmhouse and windmill.
It was a sight 65-year-old Cathy had known almost since she was born. Her family had owned the farm since 1956, when she was 3. Most of her childhood memories revolve around her animals. She had two pigs, dozens of cows and a donkey named Poncho. Her four favorite kittens, Paul, George, John and Ringo, eventually became Paul, George, Joni and Regina. Her collie, whose official title Barker of Longview was quickly shortened to Barker, accompanied her on all her adventures — whether it was sledding during the winter or riding her horse, Beauty, to the creek tucked in the woods.
Cathy and Joe met in 1970, and less than two years later, they were married and living in a trailer on the same property as her parents and grandparents. Joe decided to build a house, and for two years, he did nothing else, routinely working until 1 a.m.
The property became the family’s community. Cathy’s grandmother lived in the first house on the road, her parents lived in the yellow house on the hill, and Cathy and Joe lived in the house across the pasture.
Every Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, they gathered at Cathy’s parents’ house. Once a week, the family went to her grandmother’s for the “Tuesday Night Special” where the couple got a free supper.
At the end of the day, Cathy always found herself on the porch watching the sky change colors. As night fell, she felt a calmness she couldn’t find anywhere else. Sitting there, she felt close to God. The porch, she says, was her church. She often told Joe she would live on the farm until the day she died.
That all changed once construction started in 2014, making the property unrecognizable. Dirt constantly coated the windows. Soon the yard was covered in mud and rocks and wires.
Watching the construction literally made Cathy sick. She was depressed. She started having severe headaches and stomach aches. She knew she needed to move out.
“They should’ve taken my heart and ground it up out there with the dirt.”
"They should’ve taken my heart and ground it up out there with the dirt."
— Cathy Jackson
When the Indiana Department of Transportation decides to take a piece of land, it uses a standard federal process.
It starts by sending a letter to the owner requesting a “kitchen table meeting,” a process that was implemented as a way to interact with property owners before the surveyors or appraisers get involved. At the meeting, owners can ask questions or discuss special features of the property.
Then, a surveyor or geotechnical crew takes soil samples, and an appraiser sets a price. The owner has 30 days to consider the offer. If the owner does not accept, the state can condemn the home and take it.
That’s when Kristopher Fuller, a condemnation attorney who has represented at least 25 property owners, comes in. Fuller's firm hires geologists, engineers, experts and realtors to decide whether or not the state is offering the best price for the land.
Most cases settle in mediation without having to go to trial, Fuller said. Often, owners receive much more than the state initially offered.
Fuller's job is to make the process go as smoothly as possible, and while state lawyers and appraisers are understanding, it’s not always easy.
“Obviously it’s an emotional situation,” Fuller said.
"Obviously it’s an emotional situation. There’s no amount of money you can pay to replace that."
— condemnation attorney Kristopher Fuller
Even before a final agreement, however, the state has the power to take the land and start construction, according to state documents. As soon as the court receives a deposit from the agency, even if it’s not the final price, the agency can take the land.
The goal for large projects like I-69 is to have the smallest effect on the environment, both built and natural, INDOT project manager Sandra Flum said.
The final decision of where to take land for Section 5 came after testing different alternatives. INDOT came up with the best option for where to put in the road to ensure access to I-69, according to state documents, based on project goals, costs, effects, and engineering and safety design considerations.
Because most of Section 5 ran along State Road 37, the department was able to minimize the amount of land that needed to be taken, Flum said. Still, just under 400 parcels — everything from an entire house to a billboard — were affected in Section 5.
Flum said the department tries to be compassionate while still complying with the required process.
“It’s a fact that many property owners did not invite the highway to their backyard,” she said. “The state is very aware of that and tries to be understanding.”
“It’s a fact that many property owners did not invite the highway to their backyard. The state is very aware of that and tries to be understanding of that situation.”
— INDOT project manager Sandra Flum
Janice and Donald Spriggs didn’t remember a lot about the process, but Janice knew specifically that the buyers didn’t appear to care about them.
The couple sat across from state-contracted buyers at their kitchen table in December 2013. The buyers were as cold as could be, 75-year-old Janice remembers.
The appraiser slid the initial offer across the table. It was much lower than Donald, 79, expected. There was no way they could replace the land they had with that amount of money.
“We don’t really care if you take it or leave it,” Janice remembers the buyer saying. “You can go to court, but you’ll probably lose.”
This wasn’t the first time Janice and Donald, who had been living on the property since 1961, went through this process. About 40 years ago, the state took a small portion of land at the edge of their property to widen State Road 37 to four lanes. This time they wanted the whole house.
But the couple didn’t want to fight. They’d heard the stories. They knew they would lose more money than they would get back. They decided to take the offer.
One day, almost a year after they moved, the couple stood at the edge of their old property and waited. The house they raised their three sons in had deteriorated from months of neglect. They still don’t know why it took so long for the house to be demolished.
A giant excavator — they called it Old Smokey — went in for its first bite. They knew the life left the house when they moved, but nothing compared to seeing it destroyed.
It didn’t take long. Their house was soon driven off in six dump trucks.
Mechanic Dennis Robertson has worked on everyone’s cars in the area. His shop is small. He doesn’t advertise much, but everyone knows he offers a good price.
His garage constantly smells like oil. A dusty film covers the room. The garage is one of two on his Sample Road property, and his house — a double-wide trailer — sits at the back.
During the worst of the State Road 37 construction traffic, his shop became the place for drivers to come if they needed gas or if their car overheated. Few knew the sacrifice Robertson, 58, made so they could drive on that almost completed highway.
He saw the highway devour the forest at the edge of his dad’s Greene County property almost eight years ago, and he knew his land would be next.
He got his letter in 2014. The state wanted to buy part of his property and the double-wide trailer that sat on it.
He met with the state-hired appraisers and buyers.
“They were like bullies,” Robertson said.
“They were like bullies.”
— Dennis Robertson
He hired a lawyer who eventually worked out a deal so he could keep his home, but it needed to be moved to the back of the property. When Robertson couldn't find someone to move it fast enough, the state hired a team to do it. They worked for four days — two before Christmas and two after.
He’d lived there since 2001. He used to have a large field and a line of trees blocking him from the road. When construction started, his home moved, and his property shrank. Businesses around him closed or relocated. Neighbors began sharing driveways because construction blocked their own. The once quiet two-lane Sample Road slowly became a crowded interchange.
He has started to hear rumors that he should brace for more. There’s talk that more properties will be bought at the interchange, he said. Homes that have already been partially destroyed could soon be demolished by private companies.
Sample Road is the only exit between Martinsville and Walnut Street. It’s the perfect place for gas stations or truck stops or McDonald's. Maybe even a Cracker Barrel. In a way, Robertson’s excited about the possibility. Maybe he could use the money for retirement.
After the state bought his land, the payment and relocation fees paid off his mortgage. He still had his house, and the construction didn’t affect his business.
After everything, he decided he wasn’t really bitter.
Joe Jackson was one of the lucky ones. At least, that’s what he tries to tell himself as he sits back on his rocking chair this hot Tuesday afternoon. In the background, down past the edge of his property, he hears traffic humming on the new interstate. He knows others had to close their businesses. Some, like the Spriggs, barely got a chance to say goodbye before their home was bulldozed right in front of them.
But ever since the state showed up with its trucks and its plans, nothing was the same.
His wife moved to a house in Madison, Indiana. Now, Joe splits his time between there and Bloomington, and Cathy only visits once a week.
She spends a few hours at the Bloomington farm. She can’t bear much more.
A construction truck drives by, so loudly Jackson has to raise his voice to be heard.
He did everything he could to fight, to try to bring back the peace he once had, but it didn’t matter. They wiped it all away, he says.
“Like an F5 tornado.”
One day, Jackson says, he’ll put up more protest signs. If he could, he’d line the whole fence with them.
Another truck rumbles by — this one somehow louder than before. Then another. And another.
Maybe it's time to sell.
Ty Vinson | IDS