Sullivan's pave: Whose road is it anyway?
Can one wealthy landowner trump public debate over land use?
For some Albemarle residents, that's the question that lurks beneath every conversation about the paving of the last gravel stretch of Blenheim Road. To state and county officials worried about shrinking transportation funds, telecom magnate Thomas H. Sullivan's offer to pave the road that fronts his farm is a million-dollar gift. To some of his neighbors in this peaceful Scottsville-area hamlet, however, his free road is no free ride.
"It's such a peaceful place, such an unspoiled road," says Peter Mellen, a retired filmmaker who moved to the area six years ago for the bucolic setting. Now, he believes everything he values about the place is about to change.
The issues go beyond protecting a private paradise 16 miles southeast of Charlottesville. County supervisor Sally Thomas, in a March memo, says the 3.7-mile stretch of Blenheim Road, also known as Route 795, "has no business being paved."
Thomas notes that it wasn't in the county's six-year secondary roads plan, and the surrounding land wasn't intended for development, which she believes paving will surely invite. In a few years, Thomas warns, the area could "look like any subdivision or Fairfax County setting."
Besides the threat of unplanned growth, many residents don't relish a faster, wider road replacing the country lane. They say there are safer alternatives that would better preserve the environment as well as the area's rich history. But Mellen and others say these concerns are being ignored as a private plan alters the public path.
Sullivan is no stranger to controversy. As one of the two top executives at a wireless company called TeleCorp PCS, he fought off two class action lawsuits.
One suit alleged that the company's 1999 IPO, or initial public offering of stock, misled eager investors. The suit alleged that the prospectus contained false statements and also alleged conflict of interest. Then, when AT&T Wireless acquired Telecorp PCS in 2001, another class action targeted Sullivan as one of the leaders who allegedly failed to win full value for the shareholders.
At the time of the sale to AT&T Wireless, while Sullivan's own stock had dipped about 25 percent below the $20 IPO price, he still– at just 38 years old– held stock worth a cool $45 million. That can cover a lot of pavement.
The local conflict began not long after Sullivan purchased the sprawling Mt. Pleasant farm in 2002. He paid $6.75 million for 2,300 acres and soon began acquiring additional property along Blenheim Road, eventually doubling his holdings.
Then, late last summer, says Mellen, whose farm lies across the road from Sullivan's, "the bulldozers appeared."
What had once been a quiet lane where trees embraced the sides of the road and created a solid canopy overhead, suddenly looked, in the words of one witness, "like a moonscape."
A road no wider than 15 feet was now the center of a 50-foot clearing. Mellen says the workers– in cutting trees and grading soil– made no distinction between Sullivan's land and public right of way, not even private property containing a historic slave cemetery. And that's how Sullivan got sued again.
When they reached Leslie Jones's property, site of the slave cemetery, the dozers kept on digging, churning up a gravel path leading to the family cemetery where grave markers, the earliest from 1879, reveal a link to the Redlands Plantation.
A distraught Jones allegedly ordered the contractors off his land, a request that was denied, according to the $410,000 suit Jones recently filed in Albemarle County Circuit Court. When the job was done, the path to the cemetery was gone, the suit alleges.
No one knows what other damages might have been inflicted. Archeologists say the boundaries of slave cemeteries from this period were generally not well defined.
Neighbors were incensed. They wanted to know who had authorized the destruction. They feared bulldozers might mysteriously appear on other private property when no one was looking.
"That was a subcontractor error," explains Sullivan's spokesperson, Kim Atkins, who is also an attorney. As for complaints about the new road, Atkins says, "People have to move on."
That's just the sort of remark that riles residents like Laura Dollard, one of several landowners who have refused to sell the front of their property to allow the road widening. The gravel surface and buffer zone of trees, says Dollard, are the reason she and her late husband moved here in the first place. For now, the half-mile stretch that fronts her property will remain unpaved, soon to be sandwiched between nearly eight miles of asphalt.
Not everyone dislikes the paving project. Gene Crenshaw, who built a home here in 2000, cites several reasons: the road is dusty, school buses have a hard time turning around in his driveway, the trees make it difficult to see around curves, and development was coming anyway.
"I didn't think it would stay gravel for long because of all the development going on," says Crenshaw.
Sullivan knows how to get his way.
Back when his various titles at Telecorp included secretary and CFO, as well as a seat on the board, Sullivan shared a special privilege with CEO Gerald Vento. Although holding less than five percent of the company's stock, they held a special class of shares that consolidated voting power. With only their five percent, the two could outvote all other shareholders.
It was in the fall of 2003, several weeks after the demolition had begun, when Mellen finally caught up with his wealthy neighbor. Sullivan allegedly told Mellen he wanted to pave the road for "safety" purposes, Mellen says. This surprised Mellen, who has driven gravel roads all over America and who thought Blenheim was in "very good shape."
If anything, many neighbors considered Blenheim Road's gravel surface one long, traffic-calming speed bump. For that matter, Mellen adds, a wide paved road is hardly an invitation for motorists to slow down. Some surmised the project had more to do with keeping the dust off Sullivan's Lamborghini, a charge his spokesperson Atkins dismisses, saying Sullivan only drives an SUV– "his Suburban or his Hummer"– on the road.
By December, the bulldozing was making the road unsafe, neighbors complained. Ditches had been created on either side that made it difficult or impossible to pull over. It was clear that the work was happening within the public right-of-way. But it wasn't until January that the work was halted– temporarily.
Green Light for Growth?
Scottsville, a historic town on the James River founded in 1745, was the original seat of Albemarle County, and Blenheim Road was the route used by Thomas Jefferson to travel to and from Monticello. With its rich history, lush farmland, and small population of 600, it lies well outside the county's targeted growth areas.
Sullivan isn't the first high-roller to discover its charms. Musician Dave Matthews recently founded the Blenheim Vineyards winery at his mother's historic estate, "Blenheim," which gave the road its name. Fellow vintners Patricia Kluge and William Moses operate the upscale Kluge Estate Farm Shop across Blenheim Road.
When Thomas Sullivan began preparations for the paving in the summer of 2003, the road wasn't in the county's six-year road plan. VDOT representative Jim Bryan, the resident engineer for Albemarle County, found Sullivan's proposal to pave the 3.7-mile state road at his own expense "unusual."
Critics of the paving say that widening and smoothing a road running parallel to Route 20 can only mean one thing: a three- to four-mile shortcut to Charlottesville. Whether serving commuters eager for a by-pass, or tourists headed for the nearby Kluge Farm Shop, the road, critics fear, could soon become an artery for through traffic. And neighbor Dollard says the inexpensive land values here will have developers "flocking."
Perhaps they've already arrived.
Those who suspect development motives in Sullivan's paving plan point to three new brick-pillared entrances to parcels – each under 100 acres that Sullivan has allegedly listed for sale by McLean Faulconer. Atkins says another 877 acres may also go on the market.
In addition to his land holdings, Sullivan has purchased the Vintage Market– a gas station and convenience store on Route 20. Although he referred all questions for this story to Atkins, Sullivan has told the County Board of Supervisors he is not a developer but is merely putting fragmented farms back together.
Although Mt. Pleasant is only a vacation home for the Washington D.C. area-based Sullivan, says Atkins, he cannot be interviewed because he is currently "on vacation"– although not at Mt. Pleasant farm.
According to Atkins, Sullivan is now "working with" the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) to put some of the land into a conservation easement, which would restrict its development potential.
Jeff Werner of the PEC pauses over that claim. "Well, yes and no," Werner says. "We've mailed him some stuff...." Currently, while not a single acre of Mt. Pleasant has actually gone into easement, "We're ready and waiting to discuss it with him," Werner says.
In the meantime, other developers are moving forward. In March, D.C.-based Republic Land Development tried to persuade Scottsville's town council to accept "Mink Creek," a 700-home subdivision to be built on a lot with existing rights for only 113. The rural land is bordered by Albevanna Spring Lane, Pat Dennis Road, and Blenheim Road.
It was just the sort of proposal Supervisor Sally Thomas feared was coming when she voted against paving. "It goes against our growth management policy, it goes against our six-year road plans; to my mind it was an all-around bad idea," she says.
The Road Less Traveled
In a January letter to Thomas Sullivan, Mellen proposed a way to both pave and preserve Blenheim Road.
A month earlier, the state had unveiled its "Rural Rustic Roads" program. Far cheaper than covering with conventional asphalt, the program involves a lighter paving without widening– a "blessing for rural Virginia," according to a VDOT release.
Some Blenheim Road residents rallied around the idea, but the County would first have to pass a resolution declaring Blenheim a Rural Rustic Road.
A group of neighbors presented Supervisors with data claiming it would make the road safer than the proposed two-lane surface, and pointing out that the single fatality on Blenheim Road in the past 12 years occurred on a paved portion.
Sullivan's spokesperson Atkins, however, contends that the process would take the county "far too long." But residents say they wouldn't fight for a delay. The actual paving of Rural Rustic Roads takes just about a week, while conventional widening can take months, according to the VDOT website.
Surprisingly– given that VDOT was promoting the new program resident engineer Bryan opposed it, he says, "from a safety and cost standpoint."
When Mellen pressed the agency for specifics, he was told that the Rural Rustic Roads program is designed for local traffic only and that paving might draw non-local traffic from parallel routes, making it more dangerous.
Puzzled by this apparent contradiction, Mellen argued that these would be local commuters, familiar with the road– and even VDOT's 15-year traffic projections of 300 cars per day still put Blenheim safely within the Rustic Road standard of 50-750 cars per day.
When asked about it today, Bryan says, "It didn't meet the criteria." He declined to give specifics.
Whose project is it?
When VDOT issued its permit on June 15, the paving of Blenheim Road officially began. But residents believe that VDOT has been pushing this process for much longer.
VDOT's Bryan flatly denies the agency was working with Sullivan– but a December 5, 2003 letter to the County from private surveyors Roudabush, Gale and Assoc., Inc., suggests some sort of confab.
In the letter, firm principal Tom Gale describes having met with VDOT's assistant resident engineer on November 21, 2003 to discuss ways to proceed with the paving. In other words, while residents were puzzling over the bulldozing in the fall of 2003– and the Board of Supervisors had yet to consider the proposal– VDOT was advising Sullivan how to pave Blenheim Road.
While the agency does consult with property owners who want to pave, rarely if ever do such requests involve paving miles of state roadway where other land owners will be affected, Mellen says. More importantly, with Blenheim's low traffic volume, state code doesn't even consider it eligible for paving unless the county makes a specific request.
Why didn't VDOT confer with the County or with residents who might be asked to cede land to widen the right-of-way?
VDOT points to three county board meetings to support its claim that public participation has been allowed. The initial meeting on January 7, 2004, was the first time county residents had a chance to discuss Sullivan's request.
But this was nearly two months after the bulldozing had begun– after the road was "ruined," according to resident Virginia Fulcher.
Resident engineer Bryan contends that Sullivan wasn't grading, but was merely "clearing his land."
But that's not what the county's director of engineering, Mark Graham, said upon discovering that over 10,000 square feet of soil was being displaced. "They were grading and pushing stumps" without an erosion control permit, he says.
The extensive tree-cutting along the road has also gone forward without a required state permit.
On January 14, the County issued a stop-work order.
Since the County had no long-term plans to pave Blenheim– and VDOT claimed it wouldn't consider paving for another 40 years– Supervisor Thomas urged the Board to treat it as an issue involving growth, not just traffic engineering.
Initially, says Dollard, the Supervisors "were all with us." It wasn't until the vote was finally cast on March 3, 2004 that the 150 residents who petitioned to stop the paving learned that County officials had accepted Sullivan's proposal.
Resident Swaha Woodward, who defends the County's overall performance on growth management, believes the problem lies with the state.
"What I find objectionable," says Woodward, "is that VDOT made a private deal with an individual."
Was it simply the state agency's zeal for blacktop that caused Bryan to recommend paving? Bryan was quoted in a Daily Progress story saying that VDOT's "stated policy" is to eventually pave all roads.
Yet, the December 2003 press release announcing the Rural Rustic Road program states, "VDOT does not seek country roads to pave." And VDOT spokesman Jim Jennings says VDOT won't pave "unless requested by the County."
But the County had not requested it. Nor did they seem to know what to do with Sullivan's offer, except fall back on the engineer Bryan's recommendation and the opinion of Scottsville Supervisor Lindsay Dorrier. In support of his pro-paving vote, Dorrier echoed Bryan's disputed claim, saying, "It is the highway department's policy to pave unpaved roads."
Despite the ongoing widening project, some residents say they still have reason to feel encouraged. They've found a mediator who believes the VDOT permit isn't valid.
"I knew we needed help," says Dollard, "someone who could get through to the transportation department." A friend referred her to Peter Kleeman, a Harvard engineering Ph.D who was formerly employed by VDOT.
Kleeman– sporting a baseball cap emblazoned with the word "citizen"– owns a Charlottesville consulting firm called Techniquest, and Mellen describes him as "a sort of Don Quixote."
While initially a group of 15-20 residents paid him for his services, Kleeman says he's now donating his time because he finds the issue a provocative "test case" with implications beyond this one small community in a cash-strapped state.
"This is the battleground all citizens have to recognize," he says, "to know they have rights and privileges."
The key sticking point, according to Kleeman, is the divergence in standards for public versus private paving. Had VDOT initiated paving, a much tighter set of regulations would be applied. But because this is a private project merely being overseen by the agency, he says that rules designed to protect the public– such as public participation– were twisted to suit the needs of a private citizen.
Kleeman claims the three County board meetings didn't come close to meeting state standards for a public hearing, which require the issue to be well advertised in advance and allow sustained debate.
"Hardly anyone even knew it was on the agenda," says Dollard.
In addition, two of the meetings were simply updates– meaning no one has a chance to speak, or only one person is allowed to speak for everyone.
Another concern was Sullivan's failure to submit written plans that would have enabled the County Supervisors to assess the project. It was Sullivan's word versus those of a handful of unhappy residents in a forum that gave speakers only two minutes to be heard.
"There was a surreal nature to the whole debate," says PEC's Werner, describing the tense atmosphere of the County Board meetings.
Kleeman also bemoans the lack of any environmental review. If this were a VDOT project, he says, it would require review by numerous resource agencies, including the Department of Forestry.
He estimates that at least three acres– thousands of trees– have been destroyed without oversight.
The only permits Sullivan has had to obtain are from the Army Corp of Engineers and one from the Department of Environmental Quality concerning drainage. The code pertaining to the Corp of Engineers permit is already being violated, says Kleeman, because no investigation has been done of historic properties that might be affected, such as the African-American cemetery.
Because "no one is taking administrative responsibility," according to Kleeman, he has asked the deputy state transportation secretary to withdraw Sullivan's permit.
But what may be the most serious alleged flaw in the plans involves an old bridge and a deep ravine. The state is ignoring both, and both may come back to bite when VDOT gets invited in to improve them, says Kleeman.
"It's not a VDOT project," explains VDOT's Bryan.
Under the current permit, the paving project ends smack in the middle of the Hardware River, marooned on a skinny steel truss bridge and a 7-ton limit. Yet upgrading the bridge isn't part of the plan.
Atkins claims VDOT has told them the bridge– which is eligible for designation as a historic landmark– is fine. "Absolutely don't do a thing with the bridge," she says Sullivan was told.
But residents say once the road is paved, drivers barreling up to the bridge will find their two-lane passage suddenly narrowed from 18 feet of asphalt to a 12.5-foot-wide creaky wooden deck. Kleeman believes the bridge which Dollard says broke twice last year– will have to be rebuilt to match the road.
Beyond the bridge lies another roadblock: an environmentally sensitive ravine where Kleeman says VDOT has proposed building a retaining wall or applying a massive amount of fill. Since it's on Sullivan's property, he's liable but the ravine isn't mentioned in the current plans.
To by-pass such sticky issues, says Kleeman, VDOT has split the project into two phases. The first phase is the easy part the second, well, they'll cross that bridge when they come to it.
As it now stands, Sullivan's company, Murcielago LLC, has purchased a permit for "phase I" only. What about the $1 million Bryan told the Daily Progress it might cost if VDOT were doing the work?
The VDOT permit, signed by Sullivan, estimates the construction cost at $100,000 for phase 1.
Thus, three miles of work for which the state estimates it would pay $350,000 per mile– if VDOT was doing the paving– is being done privately for $100,000. Dirt cheap– about what it would've cost to preserve the last gravel stretch of Route 795 as a single-lane Rural Rustic Road.
Will Blenheim Road become the next mini bypass? Since Route 20 now carries 7,000 cars per day, residents fear the spillover may be significant. Based on "normal historical growth," VDOT estimates that traffic will increase over the next 15 years from 49 to 300 cars per day. But development is the unknown variable. "Any larger than normal growth could increase the projection significantly," according to VDOT.
For residents– at least those who aren't employed by Thomas Sullivan– it's the many unknowns that have left them wary of the project. Atkins' assertion that the main reason for upgrading is to enhance the road's safety doesn't convince them. They've driven Blenheim for years without incident. Their concern is for the possible loss of the unspoiled landscape. Residents say the new road is simply paving the way for developers.
While Atkins insists believes everyone will be happy when the work is done, critics worry that the real work may lie ahead, and at a greater cost than the cash-strapped state bargained for.
But Sullivan's camp says it's a free road.
Sullivan wants to pave the 3.7-mile stretch of Blenheim from Glendower Road to Route 708.
Peter Kleeman has donated his expertise to the pave-averse neighbors.
Laura Dollard says she won't sell her front yard.
The entrance to Mt. Pleasant underscores the fact that Sullivan owns most– but not all– of the road-hugging land.
Wayne Hall, part of the paving crew from Pearson Construction Co., gets back to work after a lunch break earlier this week.
Formerly a country lane, Blenheim Road is getting the cut-and-fill treatment in some spots.
Sullivan has said he's stitching old farms back together and then selling them.
Critics contend that the bridge won't be able to handle the fatter road.
PHOTOS BY JEN FARIELLO