Stanislaus County officials want about two acres of Andy Germann's 40-acre dairy property to realign a curve in Central Avenue at Taylor Road south of Ceres to correct what they say is one of the most dangerous intersections in their jurisdiction.
Germann isn't buying their claim, saying that county officials are itching to spend federal grant dollars for a project that will only promote faster driving on the rural stretch of road southwest of Keyes.
"If this is actually the most dangerous intersection in the county then I see they are justified in making the improvement but I have such a hard time swallowing what they are saying," said Germann, who operates the small dairy of 120 cows on a farm settled in 1954 by his father, a Swiss immigrant. Germann said he uses his property to grow feed for cows on the dairy which he runs with brother Charlie Germann.
The county needs 51,000 square feet of private property to shift Central Avenue westward by 107 feet at Taylor Road. Engineers say taking a 6 percent curve down to 4 percent will make it safer for travel and "more comfortable" for motorists. The shift bites into the Germann property as well as a small section of land owned by Lynn and Sam Trio now planted in wine grapes. The realignment to soften the curve from the 350-offset between the two sections of Central Avenue also takes 10 feet of driveway of a home on Central Avenue occupied by one of Germann's dairy workers.
Germann feels there would be little safety concern at the intersection if drivers went the 55 mph speed limit. However, county engineers studied the section and found that 85 percent of drivers travel at 62 mph or slower through the curves, with the 15 percent traveling faster. Germann insists that realigning the road will mean drivers will be "going even faster."
"I'm all for safety," said Germann. "My kids drive too but this is a band-aid approach. There's no replacement for common sense."
County officials, however, say speed is only one of a variety of factors causing accidents. The safety issue also involves those who pull onto Central Avenue from the stop on eastbound Taylor Road. They note that the T-intersection has a high rate of broadside and "hit object" crashes because of Central's back to back curves present a visibility issue. Central Avenue traffic does not have to stop at Taylor Road.
"It is definitely at the top of the least safest (intersections) in the county," said Andrew Malizia, a traffic engineer with the county. "We see the need for the project. We have the grant funds for it which helps our local funds since we only pay for 10 percent of the project."
According to Malizia, the intersection's current conditions met the federal government's standard for the awarding of a $719,900 safety improvement grant which pays 90 percent of the $799,900 project cost. The criteria included examining the three-year accident rate between Jan. 1, 2007 and Dec. 31, 2009 where one fatal crash occurred. An additional two crashes resulted in injuries and three crashes involved only property damage. Those factors gave the Central/Taylor intersection the second highest ranking for the grant criteria.
Adding stop signs on Central Avenue is not an option, said Malizia, since the state's methodology takes into consideration of the benefits weighed against the volumes of traffic that would be inconvenienced by another stop. The state requires there to be five "correctible" collisions in a three-month period to warrant stop signs. The Central/Taylor area does not come close to the warrants.
Germann acknowledges that the area can be dangerous in the fog when drivers are going "70 or 80 mph" but said the county can find "way more blind curves."
In the 1970s the county built the current curve to correct two 90-degree corners that had to be rounded for drivers on Central Avenue.
"Initially someone might think it's not that big a deal but they already took part of the corner decades ago," said Germann. "What happens in five years? Do they take another corner? When is it going to stop? As a farmer, we are trying to accumulate more property not see it dwindle. Sure they say they will compensate us for it but what am I going to do with the money? Buy an acre or two from adjoining properties? That's impossible."
The county expects to have the project under construction in about 18 months. Construction will take three months.
A side benefit to the project is that it reduces the county's exposure to lawsuits based on unsafe road conditions, said Malizia. Last year the county received claims totaling $750,000 from persons blaming the county for unsafe road design.
Design engineer Denis Bayzuk said it's unfortunate that three years ago the county spent funds to overlay the section of Central Avenue that will be ripped up with the realignment. But he noted the county had no idea then that it would be receiving federal money to do the realignment.
The county is trying to get both property owners to sign agreements to sell the property but Germann appears reluctant to sign on. The county Board of Supervisors could force the acquisition of the property through eminent domain proceedings if the parties are unwilling to sell. But Germann said he would not carry his protest that far.
Malizia said the county has no intentions of scrapping the project.