Descendants of a man buried in a cemetery in the path of the Western Bypass of U.S. 29 spent over five hours Tuesday with local, state and federal officials to discuss how the Virginia Department of Transportation might alter plans to reduce the impact on the ancestor’s grave and former house.
One option involves shifting the road away from the site, an “avoidance alternative” that would eliminate six private homes, but no decision was made public.
Earlier this year, the final resting place of Jesse Scott Sammons was deemed eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. That means the site qualifies for a higher standard of historic protection.
“This was part of a series of meetings … to discuss the potential for mitigation or minimization to adverse effects to the historically eligible Sammons property,” said Lou Hatter, spokesman for VDOT’s Culpeper District. “Our view in having these meetings is to try to reach a consensus on the way forward.”
“I thought it was a very productive meeting,” said Erica James, an anthropology professor who is descended from Sammons. She added this was her sixth trip from her New Hampshire home to participate in the preservation of her ancestor’s legacy.
The only attendees of the meeting were the “consulting parties” involved in the federal review process known as Section 106. They included representatives from VDOT, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the Federal Highway Administration and other groups.
The media was asked to leave the meeting, which was held behind closed doors in the Albemarle CountyAlbemarle CountyAlbemarle County Office Building.
The process is expected to result in a memorandum of understanding that outlines how impacts to the site will be mitigated.
“There’s no agreement in place but we’re working towards that consensus with the consulting parties,” Hatter said after the meeting. “Good progress was made.”
Hatter would not say whether that meant VDOT will pursue the alternative route to avoid directly impacting the cemetery and a house formerly owned by Sammons. That information was presented at the meeting, but participants were tight-lipped on what resolution, if any, was reached.
Hatter said resolution of the property’s fate is the final piece remaining before VDOT can complete an environmental review of the project mandated by federal law.
VDOT first submitted an environmental assessment in August 2012 that sought to describe changes made since the last federal approval in 2003. However, the process stalled earlier this year after historians petitioned for greater recognition of the role Sammons played in African-American education in Albemarle County. VDOT is currently revising the document.
Construction and final design of the 6.2-mile highway cannot begin until the FHWA issues an approval. The federal agency also could require additional study in the form of a more lengthy environmental impact statement.
The last such document was produced in 2002. At the time, the prominence of the Sammons cemetery was not known and was not included in the document.
Federal officials are unclear whether using the alternate alignment would trigger the more stringent environmental review.
“We are checking to determine whether the alternative alignment is outside of the original environmental impact statement’s bounds,” Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the FHWA, said in an email.
Hecox said it is possible that the revised environmental assessment could address the additional land if that is the route VDOT takes.
The FHWA has not been given a complete draft of the revised environmental assessment, but Hecox acknowledged that the agency has received a partial draft.
Once the FHWA receives a complete draft, there will be a chance for the public to review the document.
“While there isn’t a required public review or comment period for the sort of materials we are currently evaluating, we have committed to give 15 days for public review and comment,” Hecox said.
“The FHWA will review the draft revised area and then determine when in their view it is important to roll that out to the public,” Hatter said. “The comment period begins at the time it becomes available.”
Several participants in the meeting called it productive but few were willing to elaborate.
“We’re going to do it fast,” said bypass supporter and outgoing Albemarle Supervisor Rodney S. Thomas. “We’re very close.”