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2017-09-13 / Featured / Front Page

Megasite stirs up angst over long-planned road

BY JIM McCONNELL STAFF WRITER


Jesse Smith, director of the county’s Transportation Department, said plans for the construction of a 2½-mile section of the East West Parkway are underway. 
ASH DANIEL Jesse Smith, director of the county’s Transportation Department, said plans for the construction of a 2½-mile section of the East West Parkway are underway. ASH DANIEL Nearly a decade after they dodged a bullet known as Branner Station, some Chesterfield residents find themselves back in the crosshairs.

Following the Aug. 31 announcement that the county and state are working together to develop more than 1,700 acres south of state Route 10 as an industrial megasite, the owners of many nearby properties once again are confronting the possibility that their homes will be demolished to make way for a new road linking the megasite with Interstate 95.

“I’m in an information-gathering phase at this point,” said Mike Uzel, whose property could be located in the path of a planned 2½-mile section of the East-West Freeway. “I’m trying to get facts before I jump to any conclusions.”

Concern over the routing of that two-lane road was one of the primary reasons Uzel and other members of the citizen group Bermuda Advocates for Responsible Development opposed Branner Station, a proposed sprawling, mixed-use project once touted as the largest master-planned community in the Richmond region.

On a controversial 2-1 vote, the Board of Supervisors in September 2007 approved HHHunt’s application to rezone a 1,600-acre parcel between Branders Bridge and Bradley Bridge roads for 2,449 single-family homes, 1,331 condos and townhouses, 908 apartments and 300 assisted-living units, as well as 470,000 square feet of commercial space.

To address vehicle traffic generated by the new development, HHHunt committed to spend $70 million to build a stretch of the two-lane East-West Freeway between Branner Station and Interstate 95.

At the time, county transportation officials estimated that the road construction could impact as many as 100 nearby properties.

The housing market collapsed before HHHunt broke ground on Branner Station, however, and the developer announced in October 2008 that it had suspended its plans for the project. “There was a certain level of relief knowing it wasn’t moving forward,” Uzel recalled, “but at the same time [the East-West Freeway] was still in the [county’s] comprehensive plan. It was always hanging over our heads.”

The East-West Freeway has been included in the county’s Thoroughfare Plan, which guides future roadway construction, since the late 1980s.

The plan envisions the freeway ultimately extending from Interstate 95 in Walthall to U.S. Route 360 west of Grange Hall Elementary, where it would connect with the proposed Powhite Parkway extension.

“I look at it like [state Route] 288. For years, 288 was on the maps. Nobody thought it was going to be built, then it was built. I think every major road in the Thoroughfare Plan will eventually be built,” said Dorothy Jaeckle, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors.

Jaeckle expressed a preference that the county proactively acquire right-of-way for roads in the Thoroughfare Plan whenever such properties are put on the market.

“Unfortunately, the system doesn’t work that way,” she added, noting that it causes “a great deal of angst” for property owners living in the path of a future roadway. “It is hard for them to make decisions on improving their home. It is difficult, if not impossible, to sell a property in the Thoroughfare Plan.”

In the meantime, Garrett Hart, the county’s economic development director, acknowledged that building the first section of the East-West Freeway is “key” to developing the former Branner Station property as an industrial megasite.

In order to attract a large industrial manufacturer, the county must be able to create convenient access to both the interstate road network and the nearby Port of Richmond.

The county’s application to rezone the property from residential to industrial is expected to be heard by the Planning Commission in October.

According to Jesse Smith, director of the county’s Transportation Department, his staff is working to notify all property owners within 500 feet of the proposed path of the East-West Freeway and alert them to upcoming community meetings about the megasite project.

“It’s a big project. We know there are some people who aren’t happy about it,” Smith added. “We’re trying to head off as many of the concerns as we can.”

That marks a change from the way the county handled the citizen notification process during the Branner Station case.

At that time, the county only sent notifications about the zoning case to property owners immediately adjacent to the 1,600-acre parcel. That left many citizens in the dark, so Uzel and other members of the BARD group went door-to-door and distributed flyers to let people know about the road infrastructure planned as part of the massive development.

“We are notifying as many property owners as possible,” Jaeckle noted in an email last week. “Road building is always very difficult. It dramatically affects people’s lives. However, road building is necessary to plan for the future.” ¦

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