Under the guise of promoting economic development and using very general cost estimates, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors appears determined to move forward with a plan to relocate the county court house out of the City of Charlottesville, its location since 1762 and where both Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe practiced law. County officials heard, but seemed to ignore, the pleas from the legal community, who had valid concerns about the administration of justice and overwhelmingly argued against the move. The proposed move would separate the city and county courts by miles, as well as separate shared court facilities. Any final decision to make the move requires a county-wide referendum, which could come as early as November 2017.
PEC is disappointed that the county has taken this step. This is a pivotal moment in the county-city relationship — one anchored in a shared identity and, until recently, a commitment to a shared future. Moving the county courts out of the city will splinter that relationship and pit the two as adversaries in the competition for economic development and economic activity. Instead, the county should look for ways to unite more closely with the city toward a shared and cooperative future.
On a more positive note, there has been noticeable progress in 2016 on the implementation of the Route 29 Solutions plan, kick-started after the 2014 demise of the ill-conceived Western Bypass. Earlier this year, the lane widening and 29/250 ramp improvements were completed. In July, ahead of schedule, the new interchange at Rio Road was opened. Progress continues on the Berkmar Drive Extension, the Route 29 widening (north of the South Fork Rivanna River), and the Hillsdale Drive Extension — all three are to be completed by fall 2017, corresponding with the full activation of the adaptive signal system. Late next year or early 2018, planning should begin on the final component of Route 29 Solutions, which are improvements to the intersection of Hydraulic Road and Route 29.
This fall, PEC and numerous public and private partners joined together to plant over 1000 plants to attract native pollinators at the Virginia Department of Transportation park-and-ride lot in Boyce. We hope this will serve as an important habitat for monarchs and other critical pollinators.
We also helped coordinate the 10th Annual Clarke Conservation Fair at the Powhatan School, this year. Fourth graders from all public and private schools in Clarke County rotated through stations, which were led by different conservation practitioners and had hands-on learning opportunities.
In October, we held a sporting clays event to fundraise and bring awareness to our conservation efforts in Clarke County. Many new and old members of PEC came out for the day.
There is an ongoing conversation about creating a new state park for the Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain Battlefields. Unfortunately, there is also the reality of a large budget shortfall for the state. Given this shortfall, it will be difficult to get the state to consider the acquisition of any new property, but this battlefield park is better positioned than most proposals.
The battlefields are located in an undisturbed area of Virginia — there is not a state park within a 1-hour drive. The properties are owned by the Civil War Trust, and it could be offered to the state at a discounted price. The Trust is also offering to provide maintenance for the first 5 years of state ownership. The proposed park’s viewshed is buffered by additional acreage in conservation easement, many of which were achieved with PEC’s assistance. Lastly, there is a strong group of partners advocating for the project, including PEC, the county, and a slew of other groups and nonprofits. An official from the Department of Conservation and Recreation has claimed it is the best deal to be presented to the state in recent memory. We continue to work with our partners to ensure this anchor for conservation is realized, including a continued push with the General Assembly this session.
We’ve had a lot to report on this year, including preventing the Warrenton-Wheeler-Gainesville transmission line that would have crossed 9.2 miles of new right of way through land in eastern Fauquier County; and working with the local community to reverse VDOT’s decision to build a truck stop west of Markham off I-66. We are also continuing to encourage a thorough review of more cost effective alternatives to the proposed VRE extension to Haymarket, which in earlier iterations included potential rail storage facilities as far west as The Plains in Fauquier County.
This coming January will be the third year that Waterloo Bridge remains closed. We’ve applied heavy pressure to both VDOT and Fauquier and Culpeper counties this year, including a private donor offering to match up to $500,000 toward rehabilitation, but there still isn’t movement. VDOT won’t pay for rehabilitation through usual maintenance funds, and the counties won’t contribute funds. We are unfortunately stuck waiting for VDOT to pursue demolition or replacement, which will trigger a federal review and allow us to comment.
There are also two major development proposals we are currently following into 2017: the mixed use development on Walker Drive in Warrenton and the Blackthorne Inn expansion proposed on Route 50 between Upperville and Paris. We are keeping our eyes on both, and will send updates on any significant happenings.
On the habitat front, volunteers from the Orlean Community Trail System broke ground on a public habitat demonstration site at the Orlean Volunteer Fire Department, this past November. Volunteers planted native flowering shrubs, perennials and grasses along the creek under the guidance of Wildlife Habitat and Stewardship Specialist Celia Vuocolo and Janet Davis of Hill House Farm and Nursery, who also supplied the plants. Work on a small native pollinator meadow, which will adjoin the creekside planting, will commence this winter. This planting is part of our Backyard Habitat Cost-Share Program, which is part of the greater Thumb Run Wildlife Habitat Corridor initiative. The cost-share program is open to residents of the Thumb Run watershed and is funded by the Volgenau Foundation. See cover story, “Protecting The Thumb Run Watershed,” for more details about the project.
The Town of Stanardsville was awarded a $1 million revitalization grant in September by the Department of Housing and Community Development. Part of the funds will go to a performance pavilion and market construction near the Greene County Administration Building, as well as the construction of the Blue Ridge Heritage Project memorial, to honor families displaced by Shenandoah National Park. A temporary monument was placed on site in late October to help raise awareness of the project, and the permanent stone chimney monument will go on the northeast corner of the same property. Construction of the monument is expected in the spring of 2017, with mason Darryl Whidby doing the stone work for the chimney. The improvements funded by the Downtown Revitalization project and the Blue Ridge Heritage Monument will both be great additions to Stanardsville that will benefit residents and visitors alike. Our historic preservation manager, Kristie Kendall, serves on the board of the Blue Ridge Heritage project.
We helped four Homeowner Associations (HOAs) plant approximately 1,800 native trees, shrubs and perennials. We provided them with urban nutrient management plans, and finished up the effort in the spring with our first HOA forum, “Common Space for the Greater Good.” Our goal was to help local HOA boards and managers consider more environmentally and economically sustainable landscaping practices. Over 150 HOA and landscaping company representatives attended and gave overwhelmingly positive feedback.
This past summer, we finished the first step in restoring the health of Howser’s Branch at Roundabout Meadows, the property that was donated to us by Roundabout Partners and is located near Gilbert’s Corner. The cattle on the property have now been fenced out of all of the streams, allowing the stream banks to heal and streamside vegetation to recover.
We also facilitated the first Nature Stewardship Day this fall, in support of environmental education and coordinated on-the-ground tree planting projects at two schools in eastern Loudoun.
In 2016, Loudoun County initiated an 18-month work plan to review and draft a community- endorsed revision to the comprehensive plan. The Board of Supervisors has highlighted nine areas for discussion and potential revision, including the Transition Policy Area. Weakening or shrinking the transition area would spread development farther west, thereby increasing traffic congestion for residents already struggling with east/west commutes, putting additional development pressure on the rural area, and burdening existing and future taxpayers.
Though the Rural Policy Area isn’t under review, there are clear signs that the county must address points of conflict, because the current ordinance allows multiple uses that have the potential to be very disruptive to neighboring residents. We are encouraging the county to address the conflicts in a community-based approach now. The situation will only get worse if it’s not addressed before the county experiences an even greater influx of rural commercial businesses.
Over the past year, we have made significant progress in coordinating partners and lining up resources to remove antiquated stream crossings that serve as barriers to sh passage in trout streams throughout Madison County. On the Robinson River, we are in the permitting phase of removing its first culvert on the Robinson River, and we have worked with Trout Unlimited to secure partial funding to replace a failing crossing further upstream. When implemented, these two projects will reconnect over 12 miles of aquatic habitat on the Robinson River and its tributaries.
In related restoration efforts, Friends of the Rappahannock River and Ecosystem Services, our partners, received grant funding to replace stream crossings on Kinsey Run that were identified as replacement priorities in the regional stream crossing assessment conducted by us a few years ago.
This fall, the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation awarded PEC $250,000 to conserve working farm- land along the Rapidan River. The project will result in a conservation easement to be co-held by us and the Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD). This partnership among farmers, PEC and SWCD represents a new state-local-private model in Virginia for protecting farmland and enhancing water quality — two key conservation priorities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
There is also an important discussion going on right now about the future of Montpelier, specifically what types of uses and activities will be allowed on the historic property and its outlying parcels. We are aware of and share some of the concerns being expressed by the neighboring community about the Montpelier District. Those concerns are largely related to the type and location of some proposed uses, such as expanded retail, lodging, brewery and distillery, and the traffic — and the change in character they necessitate, especially along Route 20. As drafted, some of these uses would be allowed without a public comment opportunity. The Planning Commission held a public hearing on December 1, 2016. No action was taken and they are considering additional changes to the draft based on citizen comment. There was mention of the county hosting a town hall forum on the issue before a recommendation makes its way to the Board of Supervisors.
In 2016, PEC donated a property we owned to the National Park Service for inclusion in Shenandoah National Park. The property is surrounded by the Park on three of its four sides and adjacent to a federal wilderness area.
We are in the final stages of our first brook trout stream restoration project. This multi-partner effort will reconnect over two miles of native brook trout habitat and remove the only man-made barrier to trout passage on Sprucepine Branch.
This fall, PEC and Friends of the Rappahannock launched the Headwater Stream Initiative, an effort to provide free technical assistance, plant materials, and labor for the planting of native trees and shrubs in riparian zones. For more information visit pecva.org/buffers. This initiative and the brook trout restoration work both are supported by generous funding from the Krebser Fund for Rappahannock County Conservation.