The Charlottesville City Council has voted unanimously to grant a temporary construction easement to the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) for construction of the Meadowcreek Parkway. However, the resolution passed with several conditions attached.

The easement will only be handed over to VDOT upon final acquisition of 49.1 acres of parkland to replace that which will be lost to construction. Council will also have to approve a storm water management system, as well as a commitment for grade separation at the Meadowcreek Parkway Interchange.

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In July, Council deferred a vote on the easement out of concerns that all of the 12 conditions put forth by Council in January 2006 letter had not been met. Council was concerned that the County was not committed to building its share of a regional transportation network, as well as concerns that not enough of the replacement parkland had been acquired.

Jim Tolbert, the City’s Director of Neighborhood Development Services, updated Council on where those concerns stood. First, the new design for the storm water pond is still awaiting guidance from the steering committee that is guiding the design of the interchange. “That’s the last design issue with the Parkway at this point,” he said. The Army of Corps of Engineers did not approve the original design.

Tolbert also reported that VDOT has acquired 36.8 acres of replacement parkland, and that VDOT is in negotiations to acquire another 12.3 acres. If the owner does not agree, Tolbert said VDOT would take the property through eminent domain, and that if that route is taken, the transaction would occur within 120 days. He later added that VDOT was fully-funded for right of way acquisition.

Tolbert also updated Council on the status of the Eastern Connector. That project’s alignment study group is meeting later this week , and Tolbert said City staff has suggested another route that was not included as part of the consultant’s report in August.

VDOT has been granted a conditional easement for construction of the Meadowcreek Parkway

Councilor Dave Norris asked if any more thought had been given to how much traffic would be generated at Melbourne Road by the Parkway. That will be an at-grade intersection in the middle of the City and County portions of the road. Tolbert responded that modeling performed by RK&K, the engineering firm conducting the design of the Meadowcreek Parkway Interchange, shows that traffic will be increased as a result of the Parkway. He said traffic would be worse at that location if the County builds it portion of the road without the City.

PUBLIC HEARING

Twenty-two people spoke at the public hearing. The majority of the speakers were against granting the easement, but representatives of the business community urged Council to move forward. Rod Gentry with Union Bank said he was excited to see the Meadowcreek Parkway close to moving forward. Robert Stroh of the Downtown Business Association made a similar comment, and Tim Hulbert of the Chamber of Commerce said the project would do a great deal to begin the process of building a regional transportation network.

Morgan Perkins, owner of the Sage Moon Gallery downtown, urged Council to move forward now before inflation continues to increase construction costs. Albemarle County resident Jim Keenan said increased traffic congestion is a public safety issue, with more and more accidents.

However, supporters were out numbered by Parkway opponents. Independent City Council candidate Peter Kleeman said planning for the project incomplete, pointing to the lack of a completed stormwater management system.

City resident Stephen Bach pointed out that one of the 12 conditions set forth by Council in January 2006 was to see a commitment from the County to build the Eastern Connector and the Southern Parkway, another proposed connector road. “The Eastern Connector is a fantasy,” Bock said. “No one has a clue as where the money is going to come from to build that roadway.”

Downing Smith warned the City that it would lose its leverage over the County and VDOT by granting the easement before negotiations were complete. Ernie Reed of the Living Education Center said the project was “wrong forty years ago, may still be wrong” because he said Schenck’s Branch would be compromised by a lack of a buffer zone.

Transportation activist Stratton Salidis said Council should instead vote to put the whole park in conservation easement instead. He said many of the people on Council ran on a platform to stop the Parkway. He also alleged that four votes would be necessary to grant the easement, an assertion City Attorney later said was incorrect.

U.Va. Architecture Professor and City Resident Richard Collins said he believed the only reason the item was on the agenda was to “maintain collegiality” with the County. He said the City was suffering because of growth in the County, and that City residents should not have to pay the cost. Collins suggested that the project is illegal because the City and County portions of the road as well as the interchange are treated as three separate projects in order to prevent proper federal oversight.

Fellow U.Va. architect Daniel Bluestone said the height of the overpass at the interchange will be far too high to create any reasonable gateway. Former Charlottesville Mayor Francis Fife said the road “would be a violation of the spirit of Mr. McIntire,” referring to the man who originally donated the parkland to the City.

After a long string of comments from opponents, Delegate David Toscano (D-57) stood up to urge Council to support the granting of easements. He said he was originally an opponent of the Parkway, but that he now sees it as part of a greater network of roads. “There’s a lot at stake in whether we move forward, because we’re not the only players in this game,” he said. “If we want a good transit authority which has a good funding mechanism that serves buses and transit in this community, we’re going to have to figure out a way to work with the County to get it. If we want Hillsdale, we’re going to have to convince Richmond that we’re serious how we’re going to create out transportation network.”

COUNCIL DISCUSSION

After the hearing, Mayor David Brown conducted a straw poll among his colleagues to see who was interested in supporting the easement, if conditions were met. All except Councilor Dave Norris said they could support the Parkway if all of the conditions were met.

Councilor Kevin Lynch said he wanted to know why this was on the agenda, given that VDOT’s acquisition of parkland was not complete, and given that the Meadowcreek Parkway Interchange Steering Committee is scheduled to meet later in the week . “There is progress being made towards those conditions,” he said. “I asked for this to not be on the agenda. Is there anyone besides you who wanted it on the agenda?” he asked Mayor Brown. The mayor responded that he didn’t see any problem with discussing it now. He began the discussion by asking Councilor Norris what his opposition would be.

Artist’s depiction of one of the alternatives for the Meadowcreek Parkway Interchange (Image: RKK)

Addressing Peter Kleeman’s comments, Norris asked Jim Tolbert why the right of way process had begun before preliminary engineering had begun. Tolbert responded that Council accepted the design in January of 2006, which authorized VDOT to proceed. Norris also asked Tolbert if several speakers were correct in saying that all pedestrian bridges in the project have been eliminated. Tolbert responded that several rumors have been floating around to that effect, but that the steering committee knows that Council will not grant final approval of the interchange if it lacks significant multimodal components.

Councilor Julian Taliaferro said it was important to move forward to secure the existing funding.
“If we don’t move forward, it’s going to sour us with folks in Richmond, and we’ll have a hard time for the next decade,” he said.

Councilor Norris said he never had a chance to weigh in on the 12 conditions because he was not on Council in January 2006. He said he would like the chance to add more conditions. “I would like to see a much stronger emphasis be put on getting a commitment by the County and setting an expectation from the County to really step up on the issue of transit, bike and pedestrian connections,” he said.
Norris added that he would prefer to see other roads such as the Hillsdale Connector and the Sunset-Fontaine Connector

Councilor Lynch said he felt granting the easement would be premature. He said his re-election to Council in 2004 alongside Kendra Hamilton and David Brown brought VDOT and the County, which turned the road into a two-lane road rather than a four-lane highway. Lynch went on to say that he was concerned about giving up the City’s leverage.

Councilor Hamilton also said she did not want to build the Parkway, but that she saw it as a component of a regional road network that is necessary for the area’s growth.

Mayor Brown said that since he’s been on Council, he’s become convinced of the need for the road to help alleviate traffic congestion despite. He said two of the proposed alignments for the Eastern Connector were feasible, and that figuring out how to pay for it and other roads will be made easier once either the County and City can set up a transportation service district. He suggested that Council adopt a motion with conditions specifically outlining that the easement would not be granted until parkland acquisition is complete, as well as a final storm water management plan.

Councilor Lynch suggested the matter be brought back to Council after those two things had occurred, and that it be postponed until after the public gets to attend Eastern Connector public information hearings scheduled for November. “We’re going to know so much more a month from now,” he said.

But Mayor Brown pressed on, and asked City Attorney Brown is conditions could be added to the resolution. The City Attorney said he felt that was possible, as long as it was clearly specified.

Councilor Norris said it was important for the County to be presented with a clear list of expectations of what the City would like to see. He said these included a continued and substantial increase in funding for public transit, a commitment to continued pedestrian and bike improvements in the urban ring, a commitment to building the Sunset-Fontaine Connector, and to continue developing the Eastern Connector. Councilor Hamilton asked how the City could communicate that to the County, given that the resolution to grant the easement is with VDOT, not the County. Councilor Lynch suggested that if Council granted the easement, it could set up a situation where the Parkway would be built with an at-grade intersection with the 250 Bypass.

Mayor Brown said Norris’s expectations could not be considered as conditions, given that the projects he listed would be ongoing. “None of those will be fulfilled in the near future. The transit authority is a year or two away. But what we can do is we can say we’re moving forward, and this is what we expect we’ll work on cooperatively. There’s an environment that would be positive for that. I think that environment doesn’t exist if we don’t move forward at some point on the Parkway.”

Councilor Taliaferro made a motion, which was seconded by Kendra Hamilton. The motion was amended to add language specifying the Parkway would not be built unless the interchange is grade-separated. Dave Norris’s statement of expectations was also attached. Councilors spent several minutes conferring with the City Attorney devising the language for the condition as well as the statement of expectations.

All City Councilors voted for the resolution, though Councilor Norris . said he was still against the Meadowcreek Parkway.

If VDOT meets the terms of the resolution, utility relocation would begin, and bids for construction would be advertised next summer.

TIMELINE:

1:10 – City Manager Gary O’Connell introduces the discussion
3:27 – Neighborhood Development Services Director Jim Tolbert updates Council on status of conditions
10:13 – Council questions for Jim Tolbert
22:42 – Rod Gentry of Union Bank
23:11 – Robert Stroh of the Downtown Business Association
23:41 – Tim Hulbert of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce
26:03 – Independent City Council Candidate Peter Kleeman
29:34 – City resident Stephen Bach
32:21 – County resident and business owner James Jessup
34:03 – City resident and former City Republican Party Chairman Bob Houdous
36:11 – City resident Downing Smith
37:41 – Mark Cabot (did not specify place of residency)
38:18 – Morgan Perkins, owner of the Sage Moon Gallery
38:51 – City resident Ernie Reed of the Living Education Center
42:00 – Albemarle County resident Jim Kennan
43:17 – City resident and transportation activist Stratton Salidis
46:58 – City resident Jennifer Conner
48:30 – City resident and U.Va Architecture professor Richard Collins
51:25 – City resident and former Charlottesville Mayor Francis Fife
54:05 – City resident John Salidis
57:17 – City resident Chad Freckman
59:12 – City resident and adjunct U.Va Archiecture Professor Daniel Bluestone
1:02:41 – Delegate David Toscano
1:05:25 – City Resident and Historian Barbara Smith
1:06:32 – City Gaylen Staengl
1:08:11 – Council discussion begins
1:11:38 – Councilor Dave Norris asks several questions based on public hearing questions
1:15:00 – Councilor Julian Taliaferro comments on why he is supporting the granting of the easements
1:17:50 – Councilor Norris comments on the 12 conditions
1:20:18 – Councilor Lynch’s comments
1:26:00 – Councilor Hamilton’s comments
1:28:41 – Mayor Brown’s comments
1:36:20 – City Attorney Brown comments on the attachment of conditions to the easement
1:40:00 – Councilor Norris lays out expectations for the County
1:41:34 – Councilor Lynch on the importance of maintaining leverage
1:44:42 – Mayor Brown suggests conditions for granting the easement
1:46:18 – Councilor Taliaferro makes a motion
1:47:00 – Councilor Lynch suggests a “friendly amendment” to incorporate Norris’s expectations
1:54:08 – Mayor Brown calls for a vote

Sean Tubbs