All 6.2 miles of the Western Bypass have come under close scrutiny since the latest plans for the long-debated road around Route 29 in Albemarle County were released last year, but right now, all eyes are focused on a mile-long stretch a few thousand feet northwest of Hydraulic Road.
Last August, the keeper of the National Register of Historic Places deemed a Lambs Road cemetery in the path of Bypass—the final resting place of members of the Sammons family, prominent black landowners and educators in the 1800s—eligible for inclusion on the register, forcing the Virginia Department of Transportation to examine alternatives that would spare the graves and the adjacent farmstead. The agency has been tight-lipped about its plans, but survey documents and maps put a 30-year-old neighborhood full of pricey homes on nearby Ivy Ridge Road in the crosshairs of a likely alternative route.
There are actually five design alternatives, according to VDOT Culpeper regional spokesman Lou Hatter: one that would cut to the north, one to the south, and three that would still affect the Sammons property, but would skirt the cemetery.
VDOT has not publicly released any plans, but according to survey documents prepared by a contracting firm, Cultural Resources, Inc., the agency is focused on the area north of the Sammons plot.
Just two “avoidance alternatives” are detailed in the surveys, both of which track north of the original route. One shows the road arcing north to within about 100′ of the cul-de-sac at the end of Ivy Ridge Road and running through six existing properties, five of them on the southern side of Ivy Ridge and one on Lambs Road. VDOT would have to acquire those houses at market value, and they won’t come cheap: The average value on the street is north of $500,000.
Bob Brust’s lot on the north side of Ivy Ridge would be left out of the right-of-way of northernmost alternate route, meaning he wouldn’t get a buyout offer from VDOT.
Brust said he and his wife Kathy were aware of the plans for the Bypass when they bought their house, and a road three-quarters of a mile away didn’t faze them, but the change of plans is alarming. He said he understands the desire to preserve the physical heritage of the African-American community in the area; his own property includes the ruins of a swimming pool where he’s been told black families swam during segregation. But the state currently has no plans to preserve the Sammons site, and it’s hard for him to square that with the destruction of his neighborhood.
“We have to balance the history with the living,” he said. “We’re going to save this piece of history so the termites can eat it? Everyone wants to save these things, but nobody wants to do anything about it.”
He thinks the $244 million Bypass project is too riddled with flaws to justify the debate in the first place. “The whole balance of the thing is what’s bugging me,” he said.
His neighbor Brian Rizzo does stand to lose his house, and while Rizzo said he’s clear-eyed about the state’s right to build, he’s deeply frustrated by the opacity of the planning process. Apart from notification of soil testing months ago, he and his neighbors have heard nothing from the agency.
A professor of geography at Mary Washington, Rizzo knows a thing or two about mapping and spatial analysis. He has studied the plans carefully, and says they doom the quiet neighborhood. “My back door becomes the road,” he said. “My neighbors on the east side are all destroyed. My neighbors on the other side of the road are within 120′ of the Bypass. So it’s very bad.”
He knows there are other alternatives on the table, but he isn’t hopeful that VDOT’s final decision will spare his Ivy Ridge house.
“This is probably the best option,” he said of the plan that plows through his neighborhood. If the road swoops further to the south, it would come even closer to Greer Elementary. The original route was just a few hundred feet from the school, which has been a major sticking point for parents worried about air and noise pollution affecting students.
“When it comes to a few houses versus air quality for students, there’s only one decision there,” said Rizzo.
“We understand eminent domain,” he said. “We understand that there’s a greater good. But the whole process just seems so flawed. I think everybody here would be open if there was a fair compensation. But how is that going to happen if they’re afraid to come talk to us?”
Even the alternative route that would obliterate Ivy Ridge would come with its own historical hurdles. According to Cultural Resources’ reports, a potentially significant mid-1800s outbuilding and yet another old cemetery—this one marked by fieldstones and the remains of a fence—lie in the way near Lambs Road. Another finding, apparently deemed ineligible for protection by state officials in the early 1990s: a scattering of prehistoric projectile points.
The second alternative scrutinized by Cultural Resources, which tracks only slightly north of the Sammons property, could be a less troublesome alternative. The firm found no other archeological sites in the way of that route, and while no maps are available showing its exact path, its description indicates it would likely only buzz Ivy Ridge.
But Hatter said VDOT won’t indicate its choice of alternative until it finalizes its Environmental Assessment of the entire Bypass project. That assessment, which has to be approved by the Federal Highway Administration before the road can be built, has been in limbo since August 2012, languishing in draft form while VDOT attempted to sort out the Sammons cemetery controversy. There’s been no indication of when the final draft will go to FHWA.
In the meantime, the residents of Ivy Ridge can only sit and wait. Rizzo said he and his neighbors are in decades-old houses that need updates. Without knowing where the state plans to build its road, they feel trapped.
“What do I do now?” he asked. “Do I put my life on hold?”