With the elimination of the Western Bypass of U.S. 29, the Virginia Department of Transportation is now selling back land purchased for the project in Albemarle County.
“I think that the homeowners that have been held hostage by the bypass for all these years are breathing a huge sigh of relief,” said Jane Fogleman, a Realtor whose own property has been affected by uncertainty over the project.
In July, the Commonwealth Transportation Board overturned a 1990 resolution that permitted VDOT to begin purchasing land for the four-lane highway.
Between 1992 and 1998, the agency spent $27.6 million purchasing 66 parcels for the controversial project. According to calculations from the Charlottesville Albemarle Transportation Coalition, those properties are worth nearly $33.8 million as of this past May.
Though the Federal Highway Administration gave the go-ahead to build the road in 2003, the project never got underway because local officials opposed the project and blocked construction funding.
The administration of Gov. Bob McDonnell convinced a majority of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors to support the bypass in June 2011 and the project was quickly fast-tracked.
However, FHWA officials ultimately declined to allow the bypass to proceed without further justification. This spring, officials in Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration recommended other approaches to improving mobility on U.S. 29.
A new Board of Supervisors followed suit and supported the alternative projects, which include a grade-separated interchange at Rio Road and an investment in a parallel road network. The board also requested VDOT part with land acquired for the now-dead bypass.
VDOT officials sent a letter to Supervisor Jane Dittmar earlier this month officially notifying the county that its request has been granted.
“This is the official action which people all along the right of way in the 10 impacted neighborhoods have been waiting on for 25 years,” said former Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker, whose home is near the bypass right of way.
“This puts people in a position where they can feel they can get on with their lives,” he said.
But not all of the land will be sold at once.
“Parcels are going to be offered back in phases,” said Lou Hatter, a VDOT spokesman.
Nine of the parcels were purchased under “advance acquisition” and these will be sold under different rules from the other 57. These parcels have been offered back to the original owners at the price paid by VDOT.
For instance, one property purchased in 1992 at 350 Squirrel Ridge will be offered back at original sale price of $168,000 though the property is currently assessed at $264,900.
Hatter said contact has been made with all nine of the advance acquisition parcel owners.
“Those offers are in process and some offers have been made,” Hatter said.
However, the previous owners of remaining parcels will have to pay fair market value if they want their property back.
That means the previous owner of 338 Squirrel Path would have to pay an appraised price for the property, rather than the $220,000 he was paid in 1998. The property is currently assessed at $238,900.
VDOT will use its standard appraisals process to establish a fair market price. The clock for the previous owner will begin ticking once they receive a letter from VDOT indicating their process has begun.
“The owner has 30 days to request the repurchase and then they have six months to close the deal,” Hatter said.
If a previous owner decides not to buy back their property, the property will be offered to the general public in a sealed bid process.
Rooker said he is concerned that VDOT will not be able to get in touch with all of the previous landowners.
“When people sold their houses and their properties, most of them moved,” Rooker said. “In most cases, VDOT wouldn’t even have an address on hand for those people, so where would the notice go?”
Slivers of property taken for easements also will be offered to the original parcel owner.
Rooker said Albemarle taxpayers will benefit when VDOT no longer owns the land.
“The county hasn’t been able to tax those properties for 20 years,” Rooker said. “These properties, once sold, will be returned to the tax rolls.”
Fogleman, who works for Roy Wheeler Realty, said the end of the bypass removes a factor that has depressed sales prices along the corridor for over two decades.
“Adjoining property is deadly but anything nearby was also affected,” Fogelman said. “People were not able to understand how it was going to impact their property in the long run.”
Fogleman said many properties were unsellable because no one was quite sure if the bypass would ever be built. She sought to sell a house she owns on Woodhurst Court in 2011 at a time when most people considered the bypass to be dormant.
“Somebody looked at it, loved it, said they would go back to consider an offer,” Fogleman said. However, the deal fell through shortly after Albemarle supervisors reversed the county’s position in June 2011.
Many of the lots purchased by VDOT had homes on them, and the agency has served as a landlord ever since.
Fogleman said many of the homes have deteriorated, but credited VDOT with improving the properties in advance of their disposition.
“VDOT has been doing a lot of work on these properties and has stepped up to the plate and made it happen in terms of getting them back into shape,” Fogleman said.
“But that having been said, they’re not perfect.”