U.S. 31 project leaves many living in uncertainty

Jeffrey Dierbeck said he wasn't allowed to watch his childhood home on Kern Road in South Bend be torn down to make way for the new U.S. 31 highway.

"My family has owned this property for four generations," he said. "I still have a hard time going back there and looking at that property."

The stumps of the oaks and cherry trees were ground up, and the trees, along with the remnants of Dierbeck's house, were sent off to be sold to a buyer.

"My wife and I were inside the house as they took down the trees," Dierbeck told the South Bend Tribune. "One of the workers knocked at our door and told us they were going to start cutting."

Dierbeck tried to fight the acquisition of his property but was recently relocated to an area that he said does not match what he lost.

"We are not satisfied with the settlement at all," he said. "They took my barn, and I had a contractor come out and give me an appraisal of $160,000 to replace and rebuild it, and the state came in and gave $17,000 for it."

According to public records on the project's Web site, US31plysb.com, about 131 residential homes will be acquired by the end of the project.

"It all depends on where people are located," said Indiana Department of Transportation media relations director Matt Deitchley. "We're doing our best to work with those in the area and find the best possible solution."

The northern part of the project is on schedule and much of the route has already been finished to reduce driving time and accidents between South Bend and Indianapolis.

"The reason we are pushing this project is because it is going to be safer," Deitchley said. "It will be taking 30 minutes off the drive toward Indianapolis, but its main importance is it allows for a straighter drive with less stops."

But some residents are worried about the increase in noise and traffic on the road.

Scott Hickman lives on Kern Road, which, according to the records on INDOT's site, will be widened to a five-lane road to accommodate the interchange.

"The whole landscape has changed and is changing," Hickman said. "I've lived here since 1986 and the road is nice and quiet, and now I don't know what is going to happen."

Deitchley said this is a necessity to help the flow of traffic once the route is complete.

"Our studies show the new Kern Road interchange off of the new U.S. 31 will handle about 10,000 more vehicles a day by 2030, compared to what it handles in 2012," Deitchley said.

"INDOT combines many factors into deciding the route of any project. U.S. 31 was no different," Deitchley said. "Ultimately, we decide upon a route that will have the least impact both environmentally and on property owners, while still remaining responsible with taxpayer dollars."

Some business owners say they have also not received a notice of how the road will affect their locations.

"We have not been contacted by INDOT since Christmas," said Graffis Furniture owner Tom Van Der Heyden. "The survey people came through and took photos, then shortly after that they staked the property."

Graffis has been open for almost 60 years and is now closing its doors to make way for the possibility of its property being acquired.

"The property owner has been reached and the paperwork was forwarded to him, but I have not been contacted about my business," Van Der Heyden said.

On average, those relocated have had 30 days to move out of their property, which, in the case of a furniture store, is difficult to accomplish, he said.

"The only frustration I have right now is not knowing the time frame," Van Der Heyden said. "We finally decided to be proactive about it because we knew we'd only have 30 days to be out."

Van Der Heyden is leasing the building for the business, but said as the business owner he should be receiving a proposal as well.

"Once the property owner and I sign off on the proposal, things can be put into motion," he said.

Dierbeck said that, for individual homeowners, he found negotiating on his own was the best option, but even then, he'll never be able to replace what he has lost.

"The state wasn't able to find me anything that was comparable to what I had," Dierbeck said. "The home I had been offered was vacant for quite a while, the barn on the property was dilapidated and the water that came out of the well was rusty. I lost rolling hills, all my trees and a large part of my family's history, and that's all it was worth."

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