This article is the third in a four-part series on the future of Route 250 published jointly by The Daily Progress and Charlottesville Tomorrow .
Part: One , Two , Three , Four
By Brian Wheeler
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Stacy and Jonathan Hunt looked all over Albemarle County to find their first home. On Free Town Lane, just off U.S. 250 west in Crozet , the young couple found a small home built in 1925 on a lot of less than a quarter acre.
In a wooded area between Western Albemarle High School and R.A. Yancey Lumber Corp., their two-story home had a price and location that were just right.
“We didn’t buy a home in an established development. We bought a home that had been here since the 1920s,” said Jonathan Hunt. “We liked Crozet for what it is today. We didn’t come here saying we wanted more restaurants and stores.”
Five years later, the Free Town neighborhood now finds itself in the middle of a debate about the future character of both Crozet and the U.S. 250 west corridor. The Hunts’ neighbors, who include a number of lifelong residents who trace their ancestry to former slaves who settled there, are concerned about new development, traffic and their quality of life.
It’s a story of concerns that can be found along U.S. 250’s length from Keswick to Crozet, a key stretch of highway that has come under pressure from increasing traffic, but has little state funding for improvements to help drivers or pedestrians and bicyclists.
A new gas station has been proposed for a now vacant lot on the highway that is 300 feet from the Hunts’ front yard. Across the street is the Old Trail Village development in the Crozet growth area . And now, neighbors are also concerned about a proposal to build the Yancey Mills Business Park on 184 acres of mostly rural land that buffers their homes from Interstate 64 to the south.
“It is death by 1,000 cuts and it happens one little development at a time,” said Hunt at a recent neighborhood gathering. “First a gas station, then a Harris Teeter, and before you know it, the character of your community is gone.”
Part of the charm
U.S. 250 in western Albemarle is a Virginia Scenic Byway known today for its rural charm, limited development and mountain views. The highway’s 9.5-mile stretch from Broomley Road near Farmington to Yancey Mills in Crozet features two travel lanes and a central turning or passing lane in all areas except the narrow stretch through Ivy.
Scenic 250 formed as a grassroots organization in 1997 to protect the rural character of the highway. According to steering committee member Scott Peyton, it was a coincidence that the Virginia Department of Transportation launched a pivotal study of 250 that same year.
“It was a watershed moment,” Peyton said. “We had been previously unaware of VDOT’s plans to widen the road.”
VDOT’s final report in January 2000 recommended the widening of 250 west to four lanes between the US 29/250 Bypass near the Bellair neighborhood all the way to the railroad trestle crossing the Mechums River.
Scenic 250 vigorously opposed the road’s widening, a recommendation that VDOT made over the objections of the citizen committee participating in the study. The public argued that it made no sense to widen 250 when it ran parallel to the existing I-64.
With the strong support of Supervisor Sally H. Thomas , the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in May 2000 that committed the county to protecting the road as a two-lane scenic corridor all the way west to the county line. VDOT conceded that 250 was used largely for local traffic, and if residents wanted to deal with the congestion, that could be a local choice.
Since 2001, the traffic on 250 west has increased on all the sections measured annually by VDOT. Near Yancey Mills and Old Trail, traffic is up by 28 percent as of 2008. However, the section from Miller School Road to the Mechums River is up 48 percent over the same period, and from there to Ivy it has increased 41 percent.
Peyton thinks new homes being built in the rural area along 250 pose the greatest threat to the corridor.
“If you look at risks to scenic beauty of 250 west, it is not all tied to commercial development,” Peyton said. “Arguably, high-density residential development poses greater risks.”
In recent years, members of the county’s Route 250 West Task Force have petitioned unsuccessfully for the Architectural Review Board to gain more authority to regulate the appearance of residential developments visible from the corridor. Current and former task force members cited Cory Farms and Foxchase as examples of neighborhoods they wish had been visually buffered from 250.
Other observers interviewed for this story say it is Crozet’s growth and new projects on land zoned long ago for highway commercial that are the critical challenge facing U.S. 250 west.
Justin Beights is vice president of the Beights Development Corp., which is developing Old Trail Village. Old Trail and its adjoining neighborhoods have been approved for about 2,500 homes. According to Beights, the development has around 210 occupied residences today.
Beights said his thinking has changed about U.S. 250’s relationship to his development, because it once was where he wanted more of the commercial activity.
“We proffered a buffer along Route 250, so hopefully at the end of the day you won’t see too much more of Old Trail than you see today,” Beights said. “One of the Crozet master plan’s key components was the limitation of development along Route 250, and that has led us to the first phase of a successful village center [in Old Trail].”
Beights said the higher standards for development should apply to anything new on U.S. 250.
“We were held to a very high standard, and because of that, we have a quality product,” Beights said. “I would be frustrated if someone was not held to those high standards, particularly in a visible place like 250.”
Will Yancey, who has asked the county to consider a proposal to develop rural land outside the growth area and behind the saw mill as a new business park, said he also wants to be sensitive to “visual pollution” along 250.
“Our development would be invisible from Route 250,” Yancey said. “Furthermore, in a growing area like Crozet, which already has potential to double in size, you will need more jobs in and around Crozet, or you face the specter of having to widen 250 from Yancey Mills all the way to Charlottesville.”
A neighbor of the Hunts, Vicki Whiting, was born and raised in Free Town. Whiting said she has reached the point where she is considering moving.
“I am caught between progress and familiar surroundings,” Whiting said. “The other day I left the house and there was a wall of cars on Route 250 and I couldn’t go either direction. I sat in my driveway for 30 minutes.”
Whiting said Crozet’s growth has made her feel like she is being “bombarded with an influx of people.”
“I feel like I live on a major interstate in the city and that 250 has become just insane,” she said. “I used to walk on 250, but it is not safe anymore.”
Crozet resident Barb Franko is a member of the Route 250 West Task Force who favors greater attention being given to the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists, while at the same time keeping 250 west a two-lane road.
“I would like to see more greenways and bike trails connecting Crozet to Charlottesville,” Franko said. “That would help keep it more scenic in the future, protect the sides of the road from development, and increase the awareness of the people that this is a valuable asset.”