460 plan rocks Windsor

Published 10:05 am Friday, January 16, 2015

By Matthew Ward
Suffolk News-Herald
Special to The Tidewater News

Officials there fear new plans for U.S. Route 460 would be disastrous for Isle of Wight County and the town of Windsor, chilling job-creation efforts, further marginalizing many lower-income citizens and taking too many properties.

Windsor and Isle of Wight County officials are gravely concerned over the future of the county’s Shirley T. Holland Intermodal Park, east of Windsor, after new plans were announced for the upgrade of U.S. Route 460. Matthew Ward | SUFFOLK NEWS-HERALD

Windsor and Isle of Wight County officials are gravely concerned over the future of the county’s Shirley T. Holland Intermodal Park, east of Windsor, after new plans were announced for the upgrade of U.S. Route 460. Matthew Ward | SUFFOLK NEWS-HERALD

Windsor Mayor Carita Richardson said the Virginia Department of Transportation’s announcement Monday proposing a northern bypass surprised town leaders, who were led to believe it would be to the south, connecting with Shirley T. Holland Intermodal Park.

VDOT authorities, meanwhile, say they believe the southern bypass would impact too many wetlands, but locals argue that wetlands shouldn’t be valued more than the estimated 22 properties it is believed would be affected — people’s homes and livelihoods.

“The farmland should be just as important as wetlands,” said Lynn Arnette, a county citizen working for the Farm Bureau. “They make it sound like it’s 22 properties. Well, it’s 22 devastations.”

Valerie Mitchell said that along with being concerned over the impact on her own Windsor business, hair salon Sassy Scissors, she feels for a lot of her friends trying to make a living on the land.

“I just don’t understand why they don’t just go through the wetlands, because it would be less people’s livelihoods taken away,” she said.

“I have been here 37 years — raised my children here — and I don’t want Windsor to go away. Sometimes it sounds like we are going to be a ghost town.”

Interchange plans for the possible new road between Suffolk and Windsor haven’t been revealed. Richardson said that with a northern bypass, the only viable option for connection to Windsor isn’t a good one: Route 258, a two-lane road extending southwest from Smithfield.

“We have to have an interchange, at least to get some traffic from people that want to stop for gas and, particularly, hamburgers (or) something at that nature,” the mayor said.

Current tenants at Shirley T. Holland are Green Mountain Coffee, Cost Plus World Market and Safco Products Company. Northwest of those and hemmed by 258, Richardson said, 900 developable acres have received environmental permits from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.

Linking future new businesses in that section of the intermodal park to a northern bypass, she said, may eventually have to involve widening about a mile of 258 to four lanes and adding numerous turning lanes.

The corridor would send heavy vehicles past three mobile home parks, a low-income apartment complex, a middle school, a nursing home and Windsor Woods housing development.

“That’s really the majority of affordable housing for the town,” Richardson said. “Children from the manufactured home parks walk to school and have to cross 258.”

The town and county have also approved another new residential development.

“We looked into all this before we approved 200 homes, but we never considered a northern bypass because we were told there would be a bypass to the south to support the intermodal park,” she said.

Greg Willis, another Town Council member, said 258 couldn’t be widened because it runs through one of the heaviest-populated parts of Windsor.

“It’s going to isolate our town,” he said of any northern bypass. “The railroad tracks are a fence now, and if that highway to the north goes in, it’s going to be another fence.”

With a northern bypass, existing businesses at the intermodal park would never use the new road through to Suffolk, Willis added. Trucks aren’t going to drive west through Windsor’s central business area before navigating onto the new road to come back east to the Port of Virginia, he said; they’ll just turn right onto the old 460.

Norfolk Southern spokesman Robin Chapman confirmed 1,600 acres the railroad company owns next to the intermodal park “is available for purchase by any interested parties.”

“We have no comment on VDOT’s announcement,” Chapman added.

Richardson is concerned that VDOT and its federal partners harbored some misconceptions while formulating what they say is an environmentally feasible new plan for 460, a process that began after the McAuliffe administration early last year suspended contract spending on a previous plan that had not received Corps approval.

While that earlier plan, frozen at $300 million spent with no earth moved, was for a new limited-access toll road all the way through to Petersburg, the current plan also involves upgrading the current 460 from just west of Windsor to just west of Zuni, with a new bridge across the Blackwater River.

The total project length is 17 miles, compared to 55 miles before; and the estimated cost is about $400 million — likely not funded with tolls — versus $1.4 billion before.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board still needs to consider the new plan, which the public will have the chance to formally comment on.

If local officials had known their state and federal counterparts were considering a northern bypass for Windsor, they would have offered input, Richardson said. But, she added, they were focused on the potential impact of what recently seemed like the most likely option: improving the current 460 through Windsor and the other communities straddling it.

Richardson acknowledges no one knows if Windsor would get an interchange, or where one would link in. Despite her opposition to the current plans, she strongly supports improving 460 to spur economic development and provide a much-needed evacuation route for Hampton Roads and northeastern North Carolina.

According to VDOT spokeswoman Tamara Rollison, bypassing Windsor to the south would have impacted substantially more wetlands.

“The team also found that the potential development to the south was either unfunded or did not have necessary approvals to be implemented,” she added.

Richardson contests these points, saying the environmental impact of upgrading 258 hasn’t been considered. Corps permits are in place for the 900 acres at Shirley T. Holland, and “they are getting ready to put pad-ready sites there now.”

“Apparently misinformation was given to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” she said. “They didn’t think (the intermodal park) was developable.”

Last Friday, town and county officials met with the Corps’ Norfolk district commander, Col. Paul Olsen, to set the record straight, she said, while a second consultant hired in December to reassess the intermodal park found 900 acres of non-wetlands remained.

“That has been already permitted by the Corps,” Richardson said.

But its Norfolk district spokesman Mark Haviland stated the Corps has issued permits to fill about 8.58 acres of wetlands at the intermodal park.

“As we understand there are several additional properties associated with the town’s planned intermodal development area,” Haviland stated. “The Corps has received some information on this area, but has made no final jurisdictional determination on the majority. Therefore, we do not know the total extent of wetlands present.”

County spokesman Don Robertson stated the proposed route would “potentially have a devastating impact on the county’s intermodal park.”

A number of unanswered questions relative to the “full impact,” he added, include interchanges, connection to Route 258 and other local access aspects.

“However, we do know that at least 15 families, three business and three farms will be impacted,” Robertson remarked. “The County will be working diligently to advocate for the best possible outcome for Isle of Wight County citizens, but we need additional information on the details of the proposed bypass.”

According to Haviland, while the Corps agrees with VDOT that a northern Windsor bypass, based on current information, appears to be the least damaging practicable alternative, it’s still early in the process and “further public input and analysis is required.”

“VDOT will advise us if any further analysis or modification would be appropriate to address transportation needs in and around Windsor,” Haviland added.