- Associated Press - Monday, December 8, 2014

EUFAULA, Ala. (AP) - Officials in the town made nationally famous by the movie “Sweet Home Alabama” filed a federal lawsuit Monday to stop a busy highway from being widened to four lanes through its iconic historic district.

Eufaula officials, the Eufaula Heritage Association, the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Trust for Historic Presentation are asking U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson to block the widening work before it begins in mid-December. They challenge the state’s decision to do the nearly $1.3 million project with state funds and avoid a cultural impact study that using federal funds would require

Eufaula officials said the lawsuit is a last-ditch attempt to stop a project they fear will permanently damage the scenic drive lined by mansions from the 1800s. “This has been our identity since pre-Civil War times,” resident John Savage said.

State Transportation Department spokesman Tony Harris said the department is reviewing the suit. “At the present time our plans are to continue moving forward with the project,” Harris said.

U.S. 431 is a major route from the Atlanta area to Florida Panhandle beaches and is four lanes from Interstate 85 in Opelika to the Florida line, about 150 miles, except for the 0.8-mile stretch through the historic district, known as North Eufaula Avenue. The street is divided by a large median lined with live oak trees that form a canopy with oaks in front of the historic homes. The homes were filmed for the 2002 movie “Sweet Home Alabama” to serve as Reese Witherspoon’s hometown.

The state plans to cut three feet from each side of the highway median and trim some oaks to provide four lanes on the busiest stretch of two-lane road in the state, averaging 21,000 vehicles per day. Opponents of the widening contend the city owns the median, not the state.

State officials say it will have minimum impact on the nearly 700 buildings in the historic district and will relieve backlogs of beach traffic on spring and summer weekends. Opponents say it will damage the value of the homes and curtail tourism that is an important of the small town’s economy.

“The state has put North Eufaula Avenue on death row for a crime it has not committed,” neighborhood association President James Martin said.

State Transportation Director John Cooper said some opponents have overstated the impact and have driven the issue with emotion rather than facts. “We do not believe there is any significant impact here,” he said in a phone interview.

The state’s plan, which has the backing of Gov. Robert Bentley, calls for Midsouth Paving of Birmingham to begin work this month and finish before Eufaula’s 50th pilgrimage of historic homes in April.

State officials say a bypass would cost $120 million and is not affordable.

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