This article was originally posted at the Denton Record Chronicle on May 1, 2023 by DAVE LIEBER who is The Dallas Morning News’ The Watchdog investigative columnist.
For 45 years, Dora Overton of Forest Hill has lived in the shadow of the great highway, Interstate 20, bustling day and night only yards from her front door. She and her family could hear the sounds of the road from inside the one-story brick house. The road was part of their life, like a strange member of the family.
The great highway that begins in South Carolina and peters out 1,539 miles later in West Texas is about to become even greater. The portion that cuts through southern Tarrant County where she lives is expanding to 10 lanes.
Overton, a 78-year-old widow, is in the way.
This sad tale begins on the Friday after Thanksgiving 2020 when a mail carrier delivered a certified letter containing an eviction notice that announced the great highway will rise above its banks and swallow her house through condemnation. On the certified mail receipt where her signature should have gone, someone drew a line.
Overton didn’t get the letter on that Black Friday because she was in a hospital with COVID-19. But eventually she’d get to see the letter, and that’s how her nearly three-year fight began. Her house and its tiny quarter acre were suddenly lost in the lingo of bureaucrats. Her property is now part of “Parcel 8O5D and identified in legal papers as Lot 17, Block 21 of the Forest Wood addition.
No question about it but Overton is going to lose her house. The road’s proposed right of way eventually will cut through what was once
her living room. The expansion is part of what’s called the Southeast Connector. The Texas Department of Transportation says the $1.6 billion project is the biggest in Tarrant County history. No one can stop it.
Hundreds of property owners lost what they owned for the project. Under the Texas Landowner’s Bill of Rights, property owners like Overton “are entitled to receive adequate compensation if your property is taken for public use.”
There’s the rub.
Overton has extenuating circumstances. Government workers, like customer service staffers forced to go off script, tend to do poorly when everything is not neat and tidy.
At first, Overton was lost.
“I felt completely helpless,” she told The Watchdog. “They weren’t listening to me. They had an agenda.” She went to see several lawyers about her plight but they wanted too big a percentage of money paid to her. Through happenstance, she heard about condemnation lawyer Michelle Jones of Denton.
Jones is taking her case pro bono — for free — because she told me it reminds her of her elderly mother who wouldn’t know what to do in a similar situation.
“In fairness, for good reason, you have to widen roads,” the lawyer says. “You have to have infrastructure. You have to have power lines. I’m not trying to stop a project. I’m trying to find a way to fairly get her into something similar like she had before.”
Overton agrees, saying “we do need the improvements.”
The problem is that the money offered her would not give her enough to get a similar house, and getting a mortgage when you’re 78 years old isn’t easy.
On a greater level, the problem is how people, especially the elderly, are treated in such a bewildering situation. “In this small instance,” the lawyer said, “I just don’t think that the process is designed to help the Miss Overtons of the world.”
TxDOT’s attitude, she said, is that holdouts are at fault and they’re being greedy.
Describing one consultant, hired by TxDOT to handle relocation, the lawyer said: “They’re indifferent. They get hardened to it. There’s
Denton lawyer Michelle Jones is helping Dora Overton.
no consideration. They say, ‘That’s not my problem.'”
When I asked them who treated her like that, Overton and her lawyer named Terry Khammash of Array Technologies, who is the TxDOT relocation consultant.
I spoke to Khammash and asked her if the process of evicting people from their homes had hardened her.
“No,” she answered. “The reason I sincerely do not think so is because the only reason I’m still doing this is because over the past 20 years I have been able to help an overwhelming majority of people into a better situation. That’s the reason I still do this job.”
She added that in her 20 years, Overton “is the only one that’s ever complained.”
TxDOT officials ignored my request to talk to them. An assistant attorney general representing the state in the legal case also declined comment.
Overton has two problems holding this deal back. The first was that four years ago, she took advantage of a Tarrant County home rehab program that enabled her to get foundation repair, new carpeting and painting. The cost is free as long as she lives in her house for five years.
Since she’s being forced out early, she would have to pay, as of today, $8,000 to erase a related lien.
The other hangup is a second mortgage she and her husband took out 15 years ago. He died a year later, and she makes her $630 monthly payments. She still owes $70,000.
Relocation consultant Khammash declined to talk about the lien. About the mortgage debt, she said: “The rule is, if I find you with a mortgage, I have to leave you with a mortgage. The state cannot absolve you of the mortgage. The state can’t make you debt-free.”
The house across her street is already gone. Overton’s is there, but strangers put boundary stakes in her yard.
The lawyer says this is a fight about, perhaps, an extra $35,000 added to the total, which would help Overton find a similar 1,600-square-foot house like the one she has.
Time is running out. Her stress is through the roof. A friend, Helen Epps, told me, “We’re trying to keep her calm.”
The lawyer asked for an extension of a May 11 deadline. Finally, late Friday it was granted. Overton doesn’t yet have money to move.
The great highway is about to swallow her. She must be out of her house by Aug. 11.
DAVE LIEBER is The Dallas Morning News’ The Watchdog investigative columnist.