Forest Lakes resident Michael Elwood has become a regular rider of JAUNT’s new commuter route since service began in early May, but he recently asked Albemarle County officials why the bus is being followed.
“In the mornings, the riders are watched as they arrive at the stops, and the van is followed through its route from Food Lion and down U.S. 29 to Wal-Mart and sometimes all the way to [Greenbrier Drive],” Elwood wrote in a June 30 email to the Board of Supervisors and the police department’s Crimestoppers account.
Elwood told officials a young man in a white vehicle follows the JAUNT bus in the morning, but an “older white male” takes over the surveillance in the afternoons.
Recently, Elwood took pictures of the man as his vehicle circled the parking lot.
“When I looked his way with a questioning look, he quickly turned another direction, as if appearing to not want to be noticed,” Elwood said. “He inadvertently crossed my way as I headed home, so I stopped him and asked who he was and why was he following the JAUNT van and its passengers. He refused to provide a name or who he worked for.”
The older man is local developer Wendell Wood, whose company, Route 29 LLC, developed a commercial section of the Hollymead Town Center that had been rezoned in September 2007. The previous developer had agreed to a proffer to contribute $50,000 a year for 10 years once transit service was established. Wood inherited that condition when he bought the property in foreclosure.
JAUNT announced last fall it could use that proffer to create a daily commuter route, and the Board of Supervisors agreed to proceed.
County officials sent its first invoice to Wood in June; he then filed a lawsuit in Albemarle Circuit Court, claiming the proffer is unreasonable.
Brad Sheffield, the executive director of JAUNT, is aware that Wood is behind the surveillance. The Rio District supervisor also recuses himself from votes or discussions that affect his employer.
“Since the very beginning of the service starting, Mr. Wood or somebody within his company has been meeting the bus,” Sheffield said. “Early on, they were actually trying to board the bus to count passengers. Eventually, we told them that was delaying the bus and we couldn’t allow it.”
Sheffield said onboard cameras on each JAUNT bus also have captured Wood’s surveillance.
“There’s nothing JAUNT can do about this,” Sheffield said. “It’s highly unusual and it’s concerned some of our drivers, but until passengers express their concerns, the only thing we can do is make sure they are not inhibiting the safety of the service.”
Wood’s attorney, Pete Caramanis, responded in a letter to County Attorney Greg Kamptner that the observations are related to the lawsuit.
“Mr. Wood has been endeavoring to collect data limited to the number of riders on the JAUNT Express each day and at which stops they get on and off,” Caramanis said, adding that Wood also has introduced himself to each bus driver.
Caramanis suggested that Elwood could have learned about the purpose of the surveillance by asking the driver.
“Mr. Wood has been very open and respectful about his efforts and has tried not to be seen,” Caramanis said. “He could have chosen to ride the bus each day to gather this data but has specifically attempted to avoid contact with passengers and remain distant so as not to make anyone uncomfortable.”
Caramanis acknowledged that Wood had walked away when Elwood approached him.
“Had Mr. Wood known the citizen had questions or concerns about the bus, he would have explained who he was and tried to alleviate the citizen’s concerns,” Caramanis said.
Kamptner said he had no comment on the legality of the surveillance.
JAUNT is not a party to the lawsuit.
Sheffield said Wood could have asked JAUNT for the ridership information.
“We were hesitant with the lawsuit, but now we’ve been told by the county it’s fine to release that kind of information,” Sheffield said. “Yes, ridership is low; it’s that time of year. We’re working to build up the ridership. We don’t want to get in the middle of this lawsuit.”
Service on the Route 29 Express begins each weekday at 7 a.m. at the Forest Lakes Food Lion. The bus then travels to a stop near the Kohl’s in Hollymead Town Center. The service stops at Ruffner Hall, the University of Virginia Medical Center and the Central Branch of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library.
A second bus leaves the Food Lion at 8 a.m.
Elwood, who works at the UVa Medical Center, said he rides the bus a couple of times a week, depending on his schedule.
“The service is great and I wish more people knew about it,” Elwood told Charlottesville Tomorrow. “People are still trying to figure out how it works with their schedules.”
Elwood said he will not be deterred from riding and that he still is concerned about Wood’s behavior.
“This is an unusual and inappropriate response,” Elwood said. “No developers like proffers, but I know a lot of developers, and none of them behave this way.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Wood was in place, waiting for the first Route29 Express to arrive at Food Lion. After one passenger got off, Wood drove his black vehicle toward the bus and stopped to ask the driver a question.
“I asked him if there was anyone going to Hollymead, and he told me no,” Wood said. “But I’m going to go check just to make sure.”
Wood said he is trying to get his own data on how frequently the service is used.
“They’re looking for me to pay a half-million dollars, and we don’t know how much the taxpayer is going to pay,” Wood said. “It’s all about the ridership.”