Fort Belvoir traffic hearing draws resistance

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As federal highway authorities opened a June 5 public hearing on proposals to increase traffic flow to Fort Belvoir, they found themselves facing growing political and public resistance to a plan that would harm historical properties on the Woodlawn Meadow and drive the 50-year-old Woodlawn Stables out of business.

Last Friday, Rep. James Moran, D-8, who secured the $180 million in federal dollars for the project, sent a letter to the Federal Highway Administration, saying that the was joining Mt. Vernon Supervisor Jerry Hyland  in rejecting the “bypass” plan and favored a widening of Route 1 for the half mile between Mt. Vernon Parkway and Fort Belvoir’s Pence Gate.

By Monday, Save Woodlawn Stables, a public nonprofit group fighting to keep the stables as an equestrian facility, announced it had commitments from three members of the Virginia Assembly and two area state senators to oppose the bypass. State Sen. Toddy Puller, D-Fairfax, has organized a letter from the opponents to Federal Highways Administrator Victor Mendez asking him to abandon the bypass plan. Shelley Castle, a spokeswoman for Save Woodlawn, said the opponents would include state Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Fairfax, Rep.Scott Surovell, D-44, Del. Mark Sickles, D-43, and Del. Dave Albo. R-42.

The public hearing was held in the cafeteria of Hayfield Secondary School. Highway officials had lined the room with aerial maps of the different plans and boards with descriptions.

The total project would widen Route 1 from Mt. Vernon Parkwayto the Fairfax Parkway, cutting through historic property of George Washington, now managed by National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Several hundred members of Save Woodlawn Stables, which acquired more than 3,000 signatures of people opposed to the bypass plan, came to the meeting, many of them wearing blue t-shirts and Jodhpurs riding pants.

Jack Van Dop, a regional FHWA official, conducted the meeting, giving a brief description of the plans and opening it to some 30 minutes of questions and comments. The FHWA has created plans that pit different stake holders against each other. The widening plan could cause Woodlawn Baptist Church to have to exhume 100 graves from its cemetery. Pastor Travis Hilton gave a moving description of his attempting to tell two members of his congregation that their loved ones would be exhumed and moved to a different location. “They could not understand that,” he said.

The bypass plan would avoid the Baptist church property, but cut a swath through the center of the historic Woodlawn Meadow, destroying 150-year-old buildings on the property and driving the 56-horse stable and riding school out of business.

The “bypass” is in effect a completely new road, “a six-lane elevated roadway, about 30 feet high, possibly with sound barriers, and a 6 percent grade,” according to a Save the Woodlawn Stables analysis. Though the news coverage often talked about two choices for “widening Route 1,” in fact the bypass plan contemplates a completely new roadway and will require that the old right-of-way to be demolished and removed.

Two residents pointed out that no matter how much the road is widened, traffic will be dominated by two “choke points,” some four miles apart, one where Route 1 goes down to one lane at U.S. Route 95 and another at the intersection of Mt. Vernon Parkway and Route 1. A resident estimated that 66 cars per minute during rush hours would enter the old two lanes Route 1, “causing extensive backups.”

Several opponents said that the FHWA has not done sufficient review or planning and should go back to the drawing boards.

Rebeccah Ballo, who in her professional life is the preservationist in Arlington County, said the public process has not “been following Section 106 procedures” for preserving historical properties and the highway authorities have not coordinated adequately with the affected properties.

Ballo wrote a formal complaint for Save Woodlawn Stables and filed it on May 29, 2012, with the federal board that oversees the protection of historic trusts. She urged the board to review the entire process which she said was hurried and inadequate.

The need to provide more lanes for cars to and from Fort Belvoir came after the Department of Army moved additional operations to the base. Some 20,000 defense employees moved south from Arlington and Washington and some 8,000 will be working at Fort Belvoir. The Army also built a new hospital that will serve some of the 500,000 military families and retirees living in theWashington area.

Cynthia L. Mitchell, one of the owners of Woodlawn Sables, said discussions to widen Route 1 had gone for decades. She recognized that it might extend into some of the Woodlawn land along Route 1 and realized with the growth of Fort Belvoir the need for it. Woodlawn rents the land and buildings of the riding stables from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which operates the Woodlawn Estate, built on Mt. Vernon land for George Washington’s nephew Maj. Lawrence Lewis.

The stables land has historical significance in its own right. The barn complex was built in 1912 by Miss Elizabeth Sharpe who had restored Woodlawn. It contains a dairy barn, a corn crib and the oldest of three “bank barns,” remaining in Fairfax County. On the property is the Otis Mason house, part of which was built in 1854 and belonged to Otis Tufton Mason, a prominent Smithsonian Institution anthropologist in the late 19th century.

Mitchell said when the bypass that would cut through her property was proposed, she was not notified by the Federal Highway Administration or the historic trust. Her lease runs until 2016. Her support group statement said that the bypass plan was not discussed at environmental meetings.

One of the first ways it came to public attention was on April 27 when National Trust President Stephanie Meeks issued a press release stating:

“No decision on either road widening option has been made by the FHWA. However the agency does have a legal mandate to minimize harm to historic properties, and the southwest bypass alternative would cause less harm to the historic setting of Woodlawn, by moving Route 1 further away.”

The supporters of the Woodlawn Stables were shocked that Meeks would make that statement before federal highway authorities had made a full study of the options or fully informed the public.

Save Woodlawn Stables filed a formal complaint on May 29 with the federal board that oversees the protection of historic trusts.

This story was first published by the Connection Newspapers

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