Henderson’s Restaurant on Ga. Highway 36 is a Newton County institution. But it also appears to be on precarious footing, as a long-discussed widening of Ga. Highway 36 could eventually force the restaurant to close.
Henderson’s is located at the five-way intersection of Ga. Highway 36 and Henderson Mill, Flat Shoals and Steele roads, an area that has a higher-than-average number of accidents, and residents and officials periodically discuss widening the highway and adding a traffic signal.
However, David Henderson, a local attorney and son of the restaurant’s owner, said a widening of the highway to add turn lanes would take up all of the restaurant’s parking and put the 65-year-old restaurant out of business. The gravel parking lot is actually located on state right-of-way property.
Residents posed the question again most recently on The Covington News’ Facebook page following a late April crash at the intersection. Multiple residents said a traffic signal, or other improvement, was badly needed.
The state has plans drawn up for the area that would realign Henderson Mill Road to the south to create a new intersection with Ga. Highway 36 and add a traffic signal at that new intersection, said George Brewer, a senior project manager with the Georgia Department of Transportation.
In addition, the intersection where Flat Shoals and Steele roads meet would also have a traffic signal at their intersection with Ga. Highway 36. Left turns would be constructed at both intersections, Brewer said.
“Accident data in the project file is from 2004-2008 (and shows a) total of 62 accidents and 45 injuries at this location in that four-year period. The average accident rate for this location over the same four-year period was 925 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled as compared to the statewide average of 197 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled for rural minor arterials throughout the state,” Brewer said. “The improvements proposed by this project would control traffic flow and provide left and right turn lanes at the intersection, thereby improving the safety of this section of roadway.”
The latest cost estimate is $1.8 million, but there is no current scheduled date for the project, said Vonda Everett, district planning and programming engineer for the state.
“The scheduled let date has been removed and the current schedule is many years behind. If the GDOT receives deeds on the remaining parcels or a commitment letter from the county to proceed with right-of-way acquisition, we would resume activity and set a new schedule,” Everett said. “Many activities would now have to be updated since so much time has passed. New leadership in Newton County is working diligently with GDOT leadership to move this project forward.”
There appears to be some confusion about who is driving the project forward, as local officials say it’s a state project, while the state says the county is the one handling the purchasing of needed rights-of-way.
Chairman Keith Ellis said Friday he has a meeting scheduled with state officials next week and will know more then.
Would Henderson’s have to close?
In an earlier conversation, Ellis said he didn’t know why the project had stalled, but said he had talked to Henderson and knew there was a possibility the restaurant could be shut down by a road project.
He said the intersection does merit a signal based on accident numbers, but said Henderson’s is part of the county’s history.
“Do you improve that intersection and tear down a good business? I don’t think anyone wants to see that business suffer; those are wonderful, community people,” Ellis said.
However, Everett said the plans don’t call for Henderson’s to have to be relocated.
Henderson said the restaurant itself wouldn’t have to be moved, but there’s nowhere else to put parking, because the restaurant has a septic system behind the building that prevents any development there. He said the family has looked at alternatives for parking and access to the restaurant, but said they would cost too much.
The family owns nearby properties, including homes behind and next to the restaurant, a grocery store across the street and another property next to and behind the store, which is a vacant 6-acre tract, according to the Newton County Tax Assessor’s website.
Henderson said his father had an agreement with the state that the restaurant could use the state’s right-of-way for parking as long as the restaurant never paved over the area, but Henderson said there’s no one who remembers the agreement.
Building a new building is not a possibility because the family doesn’t have enough money, and new regulations would make the proposition even more expensive, he said. The septic tank is grandfathered in.
Locating the restaurant elsewhere could be a possibility, but then it would cease to be the historic Henderson’s. Also, Henderson said the building would be worthless because no one would purchase it, which again would leave the family without the capital to start over.
“Old people come in there now and remember ‘When my granddaddy brought me in here, I wasn’t but 8 years old,’” Henderson said. “We don’t have any power; we’re at the mercy of everybody.
“We want (the intersection) to be safe, too, but don’t want to be out of business,” Henderson said. “I hope we can last 10 more years.”
More recent accident numbers
According to the state’s office of traffic safety and design, from 2008 to 2013 year-to-date, the intersection has seen a total of 22 crashes, including 29 injuries and one fatality, which occurred in 2013.
Henderson said most accidents at the intersection aren’t serious when compared with other trouble spots along Ga. Highway 36, yet the intersection near Henderson’s still bears the brunt of scrutiny.
According to the state, Newton County has had four fatal accidents on other portions of Ga. Highway 36 from 2008 to 2013, including two crashes already this year near the Ga. Highway 36 intersections with Cedar Creek Drive and High Point Forest Drive.
What about a roundabout?
Henderson raised the question of whether a roundabout could be built at the intersection instead.
Roundabouts have become a popular traffic option at the state level, because they allow for continuous traffic flow while greatly increasing safety by eliminating 90-degree turns.
Because no plans for a roundabout exist, it’s unclear how much land this would require or whether it would be able to co-exist along with Henderson’s.
“Roundabouts were not considered back when the design was approved, because we were not considering roundabouts during that time. It could be considered but that would mean scrapping many years of design work and purchased right of way to start over again,” Everett said.