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Scrap storage is overgrown on this parcel of land across from Tennessee Valley Recycling on Alabama 20.
Daily photos by Gary Cosby Jr.
Scrap storage is overgrown on this parcel of land across from Tennessee Valley Recycling on Alabama 20.

Blight on the way into town
Business owners have no plans to change view at Decatur’s city limits

By Deangelo McDaniel
dmcdaniel@decaturdaily.com · 340-2469

If you’re tired of looking at eyesores on state highways west of Decatur, you’ll have to close your eyes or find another route to the River City.

At least two business owners have no immediate plans to eliminate blight, and county officials have no plans to force them to clean up.

“We’re in an industrial strip and people don’t know what they are looking at,” said Joel Denbo of Tennessee Valley Recycling.

The business, formerly known as Denbo Iron and Metal, is on Alabama 20 less than a half mile from Decatur’s city limits.

Over the past three months, The Daily has received more complaints about the appearance of Tennessee Valley Recycling than any other site in Morgan County.

Callers have especially complained about the scrap yard south of Alabama 20 because some of the metal has been there for years.

“People are uninformed and don’t know what the hell they are looking at,” Denbo said. “That’s salvage material. In our business, you don’t move items like inventory at Wal-Mart, but it has extreme value.”

Blight at some businesses on Alabama 24 is also unappealing to readers.

“I’ll clean up when they make everybody else clean up,” said Roger McGregor, owner of Bama Appliance Sales and Service.

McGregor has more than 100 used washers, dryers and refrigerators on his property.

“This is my living and the city needs to worry about other things like roads,” he said.

Cleaning up

Unlike McGregor, the owner of a mobile home moving company across from McCollum’s Catfish on Alabama 24 wants to make the entrance to Decatur look better.

“I had a fire that burnt three mobile homes, but I’m in the process of cleaning them up,” Monty Smith said. “I’ve got a guy that’s moving them for the scrap iron and we should be finished in a couple of months.”

The businesses are outside the city limits and not bound by Decatur’s ordinance that prohibits visible junk in commercial zones.

Decatur Mayor Don Kyle said he doesn’t want to cross territorial boundaries that have traditionally been respected and ask county officials to adopt rules that would require businesses along Alabama 20 and Alabama 24 to clean their property.

And, even if he asked, it’s unlikely that county officials would help.

Commission Chairman John Glasscock said adopting an ordinance to abate nuisances would be costly and difficult to enforce.

“It would be a hard job to change generational lifestyles in the county,” Glasscock said. “This would be a fight (from residents) if we tried to do it. People live in the county because they don’t want city rules.”

As for Tennessee Valley Recycling, Glasscock said, the company has been a “good corporate citizen” and he doesn’t want to do anything to upset it.

“They do a lot for the county,” he said.

A used appliance business on Alabama 24 is surrounded by used appliances and weeds.
A used appliance business on Alabama 24 is surrounded by used appliances and weeds.
While announcing plans for his “America the Beautiful” initiative in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson said: “I want to make sure that the America we see from these major highways is a beautiful America.”

’65 beautification act

With the urging of Lady Bird Johnson, Congress passed the Highway Beautification Act in 1965.

Advocates for cleaner roadways say Johnson and his wife would be appalled at the situations in Morgan County. Ironically, the act they championed has been so eroded that it virtually has no impact on the eyesores, according to Doug Hecox of the Federal Highway Administration.

“Junkyards that are on private property have to be governed with local ordinances,” Hecox said.

He said the federal government’s authority ends when junk and signs are not in the rights of way.

“Once they get off federal land, our jurisdiction stops,” Hecox said.

While not advocating how to handle situations like the ones on Alabama 20 and Alabama 24, Hecox said local governments have to pass ordinances to deal with them.

“If it looks bad coming into the city, there is no reason for people to stop and shop,” he said.

Kyle is aware of the problem, especially on Alabama 20. In August 2006, he clashed with Tennessee Valley Recycling founder Morley Denbo over unkempt medians in the city.

Morley Denbo complained during a council meeting about overgrown weeds in the median between Decatur and Interstate 65.

The 2.3-mile stretch, which Morley Denbo called a “pile of garbage and weeds,” is a state right of way, and the Alabama Department of Transportation is responsible for maintenance.

City officials didn’t seem too eager to assume the state’s maintenance role as Morley Denbo suggested.

Feeling attacked, Kyle sarcastically said Morley Denbo should agree to have his business annexed, which would give the city more tax dollars to do median cleaning.

Kyle said he is certain that blight less than one-half mile from Decatur’s corporate limits doesn’t leave a positive impression on people entering the city.

But to pressure the county to help Decatur address the issue is not the right thing to do, he said.

“Even though we depend on each other, they are a separate entity and we’ve got to let them operate separately,” Kyle said.

The Alabama Limited Self Governance Act gives commissioners the authority to abate nuisances like unsanitary sewage, noise, pollution and junkyards.

Commissioners are divided on the issue, which means Glasscock’s vote would break the tie.

Barbara Wessinger works for the National Alliance of Highway Beautification Agencies, an organization that serves as a thinktank to develop innovative ideas for implementing the Federal Highway Beautification Act.

The South Carolina-based group formed in 1993 and has members in 45 states, including Alabama. Part of the organization’s mission is to control outdoor advertising and junkyards

Before June 1, 1991, Wessinger said, federal law vested states with some control over junkyards that were part of the National Highway System.

This meant businesses along roads like Alabama 20 and Alabama 24 had to maintain buffer zones and keep junk out of the view of motorists.

Congress amended the federal statute in 1991, requiring states only to provide control of billboards along the interstate system.

“Essentially, lawmakers gave junkyards a pass to do what they wanted to do,” Wessinger said.

That’s what callers to The Daily say the government has allowed Tennessee Valley Recycling to do.

Joel Denbo disagrees and he defends how the business looks. He said he plans to change the business fronts on the highway, but hasn’t had time to get engineering drawings.

“We are a growing business at a substantial pace,” he said. “Our first goal is to serve the industry on a day-to-day basis that rely on us.”

The company has more than 150 employees and has been in the same location for 51 years. Denbo views the business as an economic asset to Decatur and a partner in the city’s drive to keep Decatur clean because the company gives residents a place to take scrap metal they don’t want in their yards.

“It peeves me off that we’re under attack,” he said. “We operate a legitimate business with customers in mind. We put tens of millions of dollars in the Decatur community. We’re not evil people. They are not going to force me to change my timetable.”

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