Rooker built his political career opposing the Bypass. Dorrier voted against the Bypass a week before approving it.
U.S. 29 would still earn an "F" rating even after the Bypass, according to VDOT.
photo by Tom Daly
It had been a long, politically charged night in Lane Auditorium. Inside this main room of the Albemarle County Office Building, there were accusations of "socialism" vs. "flat earth" in a standing-room-only environmental debate. Those of us who departed after five hours of that acrimony, however, missed the biggest news of the evening. Maybe the biggest news of the year.
Twenty-one years after its route was plotted, the U.S. 29 Western Bypass roared back to life.
To listen to a recording of the Board of Supervisors meeting, one can tell that chair Ann Mallek thought the meeting had already ended.
"I think we have come to the end of our official agenda," says a cheerful Mallek, thanking the weary crowd as they file out just after 11:30pm. Mallek then asks whether any of her fellow members of the Board of Supervisors has any issue to raise. One of them does. And history was made just before midnight on Wednesday, June 8, 2011.
The forgotten road?
There are people now running for elective office who literally wore diapers when the basic route of the Western Bypass was approved. Certainly, today's college students were diapered then– if they were alive in 1990, the year that state officials selected the route for getting vehicles around the stoplights that slow the passage of buses, trucks, soccer moms, and everyone else.
Back then, the traffic signal and the 7-11 store at Woodbrook Road formed Charlottesville's northern outpost along the road also known as Seminole Trail. To the west lay the just-completed Rio Hill Shopping Center. To the north, Forest Lakes was under construction, but there was no Hollymead Town Center, no UVA Research Park. Farther north, Ruckersville was then little more than Boot'vil and a smattering of old buildings clustered around the intersection with U.S. 33.
Still, on the day it was born, the chosen route was declared obsolete in some camps. The planned route got lengthened a few years later to get a little over half a mile past the South Fork of the Rivanna River. But that's as far as it would go.
Opposition quickly mounted. For obvious reasons, homeowners in the path were aghast. Local officials got involved, and by 1992, the so-called "Three-Party Agreement" made widening U.S. 29 a priority in an effort to delay– and possibly prevent– the Bypass. Two additional steps that were supposed to happen before building the Western Bypass were grade-separated interchanges at several intersections and construction of another road known as the Meadowcreek Parkway (the latter of which is now under construction).
Fortunately for Bypass opponents, the interchange that VDOT, the Virginia Department of Transportation, proposed for Hydraulic Road looked like some sort of cosmic spaceplex. Businesses along the corridor coalesced in opposition, and the interchanges died.
The Bypass would continue to earn infamy because its chosen six-mile path preceded much of the northern U.S. 29 development. Its high per-mile cost, its inability to get around those northern suburbs, and the state's own research suggesting that 90 percent of existing 29 traffic is local, led a national group called Taxpayers for Common Sense to name the Western Bypass one of the most wasteful road projects in the nation.
Meanwhile, the state had begun buying up properties for the Western Bypass including, in October 1991, two residential parcels in the Squirrel Ridge neighborhood. Those purchases would take on major significance 20 years later in the spring of 2011.
"I want to bring up the Bypass issue and move to change my vote," says Supervisor Lindsay Dorrier that night in Lane Auditorium.
With those words began one of the more unusual– some might say bizarre– episodes in the history of the six-member Board of Supervisors, a body that changed dramatically in November 2009 with the election-day ouster of Democrat David Slutzky and the ascent of Republicans Rodney Thomas and Duane Snow. Together with incumbent Republican Ken Boyd and conservative Democrat Dorrier, the newcomers created a four-vote bloc tipping the balance of power. Never was the tip more evident than that Wednesday night, just one week after a similar discussion led to a 3-3 tie.
"The rule from the chair: we're not going to change a vote tonight," responds the still-smiling chairperson Mallek, a Democrat. "It's not part of the agenda. The meeting is closed."
That's when Boyd pipes up to say the meeting isn't closed. He's right about that. He prods the County attorney to explain that by taking three separate votes, the Supervisors can continue to make policy– as long as their first vote reverses their own recently-adopted rule on the public process.
"I can't believe I'm sitting on a board that will change the rules at the drop of a hat," says a clearly angry Supervisor Dennis Rooker, a man who built his political career on rural preservation including opposition to the Bypass.
"There's been a motion made and seconded, Mr. Rooker," says Boyd. "You can continue to argue if you want to."
One of the things concerning the opposition is that Dorrier is reading from a printed motion provided by another supervisor, Rodney Thomas, and Dorrier has such trouble reading it that Boyd begins interjecting words to assist his fellow supe, who suffers from Parkinson's Disease.
"It's his motion," interrupts Rooker. "Let him make it."
As Dorrier gathers his thoughts, he asserts that what changed his mind was a half-hour conversation with Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton, in which the Bypass-eager Secretary allegedly promises that the plan also includes full funding for a widening of U.S. 29, as well as a new bridge to extend Berkmar Drive northward over the Rivanna River.
"When he said all that," says Dorrier, "I said I would switch my vote and go forward immediately."
"And as a bonus we get a Bypass," says Snow. "What more can we ask for?"
"Have you seen this in writing?" asks an incredulous Mallek. "We will see our Hillsdale [Drive Extension] money and all the other money leave those projects that are our highest priority. They have the power to move the funds around within the district at their discretion."
"I am horrified that people think this is an acceptable way to behave," says Mallek, as three consecutive 4-2 votes, with her and Rooker on the losing side, begin the fast-tracking of the Western Bypass.
Joy in Lynchville
If there was horror in some quarters of Albemarle, the decision brought joy in Lynchburg, a bastion of manufacturing located about an hour south of Charlottesville. Businesspeople in Lynchburg, and further south in Danville, have long complained that Charlottesville remains an expensive bottleneck for trucking operations, which in 2005 won a bypass around the Lynchburg suburb of Madison Heights. Such businesses found their voice in Lynchburg-based State Senator Steven Newman.
"We are very pleased with the decision by the Albemarle Board," Newman said in a post-vote prepared statement, which noted how he approached Transportation Secretary Connaughton for assistance during last winter's legislative session.
"Secretary Connaughton is the right man to move us toward finally seeing the construction of the 29 bypass," Newman continued. "I had indicated to the Secretary that if he did not get the road built during his time in office, the project would likely fail."
Newman is alluding to the expiration date on properties purchased for road projects which Virginia law clearly allows the buyer to repurchase if 20 years have elapsed without construction. For two Squirrel Ridge homeowners, that date had almost arrived.
An easier way?
It's not just big business owners in Lynchburg and Danville who relish the idea of getting past the 13 traffic lights between Rt. 250 and Walmart that currently vex drivers along Seminole Trail.
Terrie Brown is the mother of a soccer player who has to be at the South Fork Soccer Park up on Polo Grounds Road as many as four times a week.
"I try to avoid 29 whenever possible," says Brown, whose rising sixth grade son has soccer practice there three times a week. The timing of the practice– 5pm– is peak rush hour on 29. So Brown, who owns Browns Cleaners in the Barracks Road Shopping Center, has come up with a bypass of her own when traveling from her Ivy home, taking Woodlands Road to Rio to 29, allowing her to skip many of the signals she'd hit if she entered at the 250 intersection.
Brown says she's not the only Western Albemarle resident to find creative alternate routes, including one unmarked gravel road that she's heard connects Woodlands to Seminole Trail. "People go to all efforts to avoid 29," she says.
But even though Brown says she'd personally benefit from lightened traffic and a speedier route, she has concerns about the impact the bypass will have, and the limited information thus far provided to the public.
"I think it would be a good thing," she says, "but what's the downside?"
The late Charlotte Humphris
Before Dennis Rooker joined the Board of Supervisors, there was Charlotte Humphris. Now immortalized with a County park in her name, Humphris discovered that the planned path would destroy four homes in her Colthurst subdivision. She went on to serve three terms on the Board and was a vocal opponent. She died in 2004, three years after her final term ended.
"She would have been very upset," says her widower, Bob Humphris.
"It's the first time in my experience watching the board for 55 years that I've ever seen anything like that," continues Humphris. "That tactic– to not notify the public or have it on the agenda– I don't know if it's unethical, but it seems like it is."
As for Lindsay Dorrier's vote change, "I'm so disappointed in what he did," says Humprhis. "I know in the past his financial statements show he gets his money from developers and builders. Somehow they got to him. They have high connections to Connaughton. I know Lindsay didn't do it himself. It's like a conspiracy to get this done."
Humphris says VDOT traffic counts show that only 2,000 to 3,000 vehicles a day of through traffic will get diverted by the Bypass, not the 55,000 cars and 10,000 trucks touted as bottlenecked by the Lynchburg Chamber of Commerce.
"For Republicans to be so tax conscious and then to put that money into a bypass where the cost-benefit is so low... " muses Humphris.
Interviewed a few days later, Rooker too is still fuming, and he feels sorry for the 67-year-old Dorrier, who suffers from debilitating Parkinsons, a disease that has physical and sometimes mental effects.
"I think Lindsay is in an impaired state," says Rooker. "I've observed in meetings he's often confused. Do I think he can be manipulated? Yes, because he gets confused."
But Dorrier recoils at the suggestion.
"That's an opinion I don't share," he says in a telephone interview. "I take my medication. I stand by the decision, and I think it'll be beneficial to the public."
And as for the late night approval, that came about because, Dorrier concedes, he was late to the meeting and that the first chance he got to make his motion was at the end of the meeting, after the lengthy sustainability discussion.
"I don't think it was improper," he continues. "The rules were suspended by the board. A majority thought it was important enough to suspend the rules."
As for the criticism of no public input: "I think there's been public input over the years," says Dorrier.
"This is the first time I've heard there's public funding– $260 or $270 million," says Dorrier. "Some of the money will come from Lynchburg and Danville. They want a bypass so badly they're giving up their funding. I thought that was the right thing to do. The mechanics of getting to it were a little messy."
If there is a single most beautiful point along the six-mile Western Bypass route, it might be Stillhouse Mountain Farm. Less than a mile from the city limits and standing 797 feet tall, it's just 53 feet lower than Monticello Mountain. And like Monticello, it offers proverbial– and actual– 360-degree views.
"You can see Monticello; you can see Afton and the Blue Ridge," says Peggy McLean, who has lived here with her husband, a retired doctor, since 1982, long before there was any whiff of a bypass.
"Do you mind riding in a Gator?" asks McLean.
An athletic 88-year-old who works out at ACAC health club, McLean bounds into the driver's seat of the John Deere vehicle for an impromptu farm tour.
"I want so much to buy it back, to get the land back," says McLean, noting that the state has already purchased 9 of the couple's original 32 acres.
She points out that the house, constructed in 1935, comes from a similar design and vintage as Westover, a nearby mansion now owned by the University of Virginia Foundation. And like Westover, which UVA rents out for parties, the Stillhouse Mountain house features a classical portico with four white columns that gleam in the afternoon light.
"It's a shame," says McLean, mentioning the countless meetings she and her husband would attend in an attempt to convince authorities to move or cancel the road or give it some of the protection that Westover won when the Bypass was planned.
Like Westover, the house was constructed for a scion of the Faulconer family, and the McLeans tried to convince the state that the place was historic. At one point they won a meeting with then governor George Allen.
"He just shrugged his shoulders," says McLean.
The couple urged VDOT to put the tunnel underground. Too expensive they were told. McLean– who remembers earth-shaking blasting that presaged the early 1990s construction of the Colonnades nursing home– can't imagine how she'll possibly cope with the dynamite blasts that will demolish one side of this mountain.
As the off-road vehicle steers past century-old oak trees, McLean points out the barn where her daughter– one of seven children– used to tend the family horses. This may soon be separated from the core of the property by a four-lane freeway.
As the Gator slows, a visitor can hear the chirp of birds and the occasional muffled hum from the existing 29/250 Bypass, which lies three-fifths of a mile away. The new Bypass– with its diesel trucks throttling up to climb what was once the McLeans' mountain– will come much closer. How close?
As McLean steers the green machine back toward the house, she points out one particular oak tree standing just 100 yards or so from her front door. The tree represents the edge of the Western Bypass property.
"We can't sell, and we can't settle anything," says McLean. "It's just a huge thing hanging over our heads at our age."
An imperfect path
"Everyone seems to be looking for the perfect solution," says the Secretary of Transportation, Sean Connaughton, in a telephone interview a couple of days after the historic Supervisors' vote. "We recognize it's not a perfect solution, but it is a major step forward."
Connaughton clarifies that his conversation with Dorrier did not include any promises about funding Berkmar Drive Extended or any extra bridge across the Rivanna River.
"The discussion I had with him was specifically about this project," says Connaughton, further clarifying that he considers the planned widening of U.S. 29 the only other part of the discussion.
If one asks VDOT for a map of the Bypass, what one gets are little black-and-white sketches that make no effort to show the road in its geographic context. What is known is this:
Its southernmost point is the existing 29/250 Bypass across from Leonard Sandridge Road, the main gateway to the North Grounds of the University of Virginia (which was built in 2006). The Bypass starts by taking the eastern border of St. Anne's-Belfield School. During a decade-ago public hearing, the giant maps adorning the wall showed that the existing 29/250 Bypass would be relocated– shifted a few dozen yards or so from its current footprint– to make the interchanges work.
From there it heads north toward Stillhouse Mountain, slicing off the western edge of that peak before lopping off four houses from the eastern edge of the Colthurst subdivision, crossing Garth Road and lopping five houses off the western edge of the Montvue subdivision. From there, it moves northeast to wrap around and eat about 15 acres off the back side of the Albemarle County Schools complex that includes Albemarle High, Jack Jouett Middle, and Mary Carr Greer Elementary.
It then crosses Lambs, Roslyn Ridge, and Earlysville Roads. At that point, it destroys part of the Squirrel Ridge subdivision, a place profiled three years ago in a Hook cover story that explored the limbo of living in a neighborhood whose existence is uncertain.
From there, the Bypass slides just behind the businesses that line Hydraulic-Rio Road as it steers toward Woodburn Road, which it cuts as it heads toward the south fork of the Rivanna River just behind the Walmart, Sam's Club, and DoubleTree Hotel. Atop a new bridge (which should afford close views of the Rivanna Reservoir's dam), the road then moves through forested land parallel to the existing U.S. 29 as it finally intersects 915 meters north of the river. The northern interchange lies between Forest Lakes South and Polo Grounds Road.
In the (Squirrel) Path
Located on a bluff near the Rivanna Reservoir just off Earlysville Road, the Squirrel Ridge subdivision comprises 24 houses on two curvy cul-de-sacs. It was here in the fall of 1991 that the state made two of its earliest purchases for the neighborhood-breaking Bypass.
According to Virginia Code Section 33.1-90, VDOT must begin construction within 20 years of purchasing any property. If construction does not begin within that time frame, the former owner has 90 days to request the parcel back for the price VDOT paid.
When the Hook did the story about the plight of Squirrel Ridge, some of the former homeowners were saIivating about the idea of buying back their houses at the their 1991 prices.
One real estate collapse later, however, and that prospect has dimmed.
"This market is so bad I am actually glad not to have to make the decision now," says former Squirrel Ridge resident Joe Graham. "The value of the house is not much different than it was twenty years ago."
Nonetheless, the folks in Lynchburg were well aware of the impending deadline, which for Joe Graham's house may have been as soon as October 30.
"We were getting very close to the dates when the right of way would be required to be returned or sold back to the former owners," says Senator Newman in his statement. "This would have killed the bypass forever. “
What the 4-2 Albemarle Board of Supervisors votes did was clear a path for the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the 5-member regional body that can give a red or green light to road projects. Until now, the MPO has stalled the Bypass by refusing to put it on the list of construction-funded projects. But with Supervisors Thomas and Snow and a VDOT rep expected to form at least a three-vote majority, there appears little to derail the Bypass.
The state Secretary of Transportation says the governor is on board and although he dismisses the word "intervention," the sudden high-level interest in Charlottesville's most controversial road project appears to leave little wiggle room for opponents, who may recall that a road called the Meadowcreek Parkway foundered until a U.S. Senator named John Warner suddenly found a $27-million federal earmark to build the missing interchange.
"If everything works perfectly and if everyone signs off on this thing," says Connaughton, "we could be looking to go to a contract by the end of this year."
--with additional reporting by Lisa Provence and Courteney Stuart