One proposed high speed rail option leaves residents in Hanover uncertain

March 31, 2016

Source: Debbie Truong | Richmond Times Dispatch

On the front steps of a house nestled in the back corner of a 90-acre farm her family tilled for generations, Michelle Tobin told of the sweat that was spilled to build the Hanover County home she said she never would leave.

She and her husband pictured raising their family in a rural setting, with plenty of open space and woods to explore, Tobin said, as the family dog, a Shih Tzu named Thumper, scampered nearby.

So they found a company in Montana that harvests dead pine trees, and with help from family and friends designed and constructed the log home where they’ve lived for the past 12 years. Tobin’s sons, ages 10 and 11, ride four-wheelers, play along the creek, and have picked the land where they plan to build their houses.

“This is our forever home,” she said.

It’s the kind of tranquil way of life cast among the trees, fields and grassy expanses in a bucolic part of Hanover that many residents who live here sought.

Now, Tobin and her neighbors fear that lifestyle is threatened by a high-speed rail project that would link Washington and Richmond.

Officials are studying potential infrastructure that may be needed for the segment of the rail in Hanover, and one option may require a bypass west of the town of Ashland.

The bypass is far from a certainty — the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation is also studying an option that would require a third railroad track through the town of Ashland and another that doesn’t require additional construction.

A draft of an environmental impact statement examining all the options will be published in the fall, followed by a period for the public to comment.

But county-dwellers who live near or along the path of the proposed bypass already have mounted an effort to oppose it. They argue that train traffic would lower property values and irrevocably scar the land.

“These are people’s lives,” Tobin said. “It’s basically through our front yards, across our driveways, across farms, and it does nothing for this community.”

Tobin and other residents, many of whom said they learned about the bypass from either neighbors or by encountering surveyors, also are frustrated and dismayed with state and local officials for what they described as a failure to communicate information about a proposal that could upend their lives.

Earlier this month, they founded a group called Families Under the Rail, a nonprofit organization “dedicated to the opposition of high-speed rail through our community,” according to a statement on the group’s website.

The group has raised close to $4,000 on an online fundraising website, packed a town hall meeting hosted by U.S. Rep. Dave Brat, R-7th, and leveled criticisms at local elected officials for what they view as inadequate representation.

They’ve vowed to press ahead using “every resource and legal avenue at our disposal,” said Mike Valentine, one of the group’s board members who conceded it felt like a David vs. Goliath fight.

“We were thrown under the rail. We were thrown into this fray with no representation, no prior notice,” he said.

Opposition grows

Bright yellow signs with blue type that read “NO HIGHSPEED RAIL” dot virtually every property along Cross Corner Road, a narrow two-lane country road lined by homes set on sprawling properties.

Bryan and Terri Flagg have lived on Cross Corner Road for 12 years and, like others, said they were alerted about the proposed bypass in January or February from neighbors.

After receiving a text message, Terri Flagg found the website for the project. She looked at a map that showed the proposed path for the bypass and learned it would slice across the couple’s expansive front yard.

“I wanted to sell, but it’s too late,” Bryan Flagg said.

“At this point, you can’t do anything. You can’t sell. ... Nobody would buy it,” Terri Flagg said. “You’d have to disclose it. You’re kind of stuck. This was going to be our retirement home. Don’t know what it’s going to be at this point in time.”

Emily Stock, manager of rail planning at the Department of Rail and Public Transportation, said the designs for the three options currently under consideration were unveiled at public meetings in June. More refined designs were presented in December.

The department releases information about public meetings through news releases and advertisements, Stock said. The department also mailed letters notifying property owners within 500 feet of field work that recently began, as is legally required.

Terri Flagg said she was unaware of the June and December public meetings and would have expected the “courtesy” of being notified directly about them.

Residents are just as critical of the county.

“I’m very angry at our local officials. They need to hear our voice,” said Lynn Hamilton, who has lived on Cross Corner Road with her husband for 25 years. “I want them to know how I feel about their insensitivity.”

On Oct. 26, the Hanover and Ashland liaison committee met after being solicited for feedback by the Department of Rail and Public Transportation, said Wayne Hazzard, then-chairman of the Board of Supervisors and South Anna District representative who served on the committee at the time.

Town and county officials agreed that the option requiring a third track through Ashland would devastate the town, he said.

Ashland officials and town residents have roundly opposed the option that would require a third track through town, saying it would harm businesses and property values of homes situated on either side of the existing railroad and spoil the town’s dynamic.

After the liaison committee meeting, both the town and county submitted letters to the Department of Rail and Public Transportation indicating a preference for the western bypass instead of a third track through Ashland.

Those who have criticized how the county handled notifying residents have pointed to a Jan. 7 letter from County Administrator Cecil R. “Rhu” Harris Jr. to the Department of Rail and Public Transportation. Families Under the Rail has asked the county to retract the letter.

In a phone interview, Harris noted that the county’s preference for the bypass in the letter is prefaced by the phrase “should it be determined that a new track is needed.”

“There’s an ‘if’ right there,” Harris said, adding that there is the possibility the county could rescind or modify its stance as the study progresses.

The state, he said, could have gone to greater lengths to keep Hanover residents informed.

“Communication could have been better. I absolutely agree with that,” Harris said.

“Had the state taken additional efforts knowing that they were going through virgin property, not just expanding right of way of the current rail line, if they had conducted some additional information sessions out here, it would have served us all better.”

Aubrey M. “Bucky” Stanley, the newly elected Board of Supervisors chairman who represents the Beaverdam District that encompasses the affected land, said he learned about the bypass just before a Feb. 17 town hall meeting hosted by Brat, where the lawmaker was bombarded by opposition to the project from a standing-room-only crowd.

Stanley, the longest-ever serving Hanover supervisor, said he supports Families Under the Rail and long has gone to bat for the people he represents.

He said he would push for the state to consider an option where the high-speed trains would use the existing rail lines in Ashland, slow down through town, and regain speed once outside of it.

“Had I known this earlier, we wouldn’t be having this discussion now,” Stanley said. “It would have been much earlier.”

Exploring alternatives

Critics of the western bypass have urged officials to reconsider an option for a bypass east of Ashland following the existing Buckingham Branch rail line.

The Buckingham option was reviewed earlier in the study process but not pursued further because the “alignment is very crooked” and “not an ideal alignment for high-speed rail,” according to Stock, with the Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

An eastern bypass also would affect a more heavily developed area and could touch more natural resources including endangered species and flood plains, as well as cultural resources such as historic structures, she said.

Stock encouraged feedback from people who live where the proposed western bypass would sit. The best time to offer feedback would be during public comment after a draft of the environmental impact statement is published in the fall, she said.

“We want people to know about the project,” Stock said. “(We) want information about sensitive resources. Anything the group can tell us about the resources is welcome.”

The state is responsible for studying the environmental impacts, but the rail project is part of a larger initiative by the federal government to grow high-speed rail nationally. Officials have said trains could travel up to 90 mph, cutting travel time and adding capacity for freight trains.

Stock emphasized that designs are not final and the alignment of the western bypass option could shift depending on further study.

Danny Plaugher, director of Virginians for High Speed Rail, said he understands Families Under the Rail’s perspective, but, at this point in the study, said his advocacy group supports the western bypass option.

Teams from the state agency are also reviewing another option where Ashland would retain its two railroad lines with improvements to accommodate the higher-speed trains, but Stock also said that might not be feasible depending on rail operations.

“We understand how putting lines on a map affects property owners and communities. This is part of the planning process,” Stock said. “It comes at a stage in the process when we don’t have all the answers.”

‘Cloud’ over properties

The land was purchased, an architect hired, and the contract with a builder signed.

Then, about a month ago, as Bob and Carey Carlisle were beginning to dig the well on the plot of land they bought for the country estate they envisioned, the couple learned that a bypass could cut through an open field across from their property.

“There goes the peace, quiet and property value all at the same time,” Bob Carlisle said.

The high-speed rail depends on future state and federal funding, according to the project’s website, and could be completed in a decade.

“Probably the soonest, if everything went perfectly and everything, it’d be 10 years from now. So you have 10 years of peace and quiet,” Carlisle said, lightheartedly.

“It’s just a shame. It’s just a shame how it all came about. There was so little transparency, I think, on the part of the rail and our county.”

The Carlisles will continue to build their home — they’ve invested too much already not to do so — but their predicament is a concern voiced by others who live in the area and say even the prospect of a bypass lowers property values for families seeking to sell as the study unfolds or deter potential buyers

“We now have a black cloud standing over our properties. This can exist for years,” said Valentine, one of the Families Under the Rail board members. “We’re trying to lift this black cloud off ourselves.”

As they stood on sand and gravel at the edge of their property on a recent weekday afternoon, the Carlisles said they hope that presenting their point of view in a measured, reasonable way will yield understanding.

An informational meeting is planned Monday at 6:30 p.m. at Patrick Henry High School, where the Department of Rail and Public Transportation will provide updates and discuss future plans.

“The meeting on the fourth is going to be contentious, I’m relatively sure. There’s going to be a lot of emotion, and we’re trying to keep emotion out of it and show the facts and show our plight, I guess. Our perspective on it and see if there’s some other solution,” Bob Carlisle said.

Moments later, a man driving a sedan stopped his car, stepped out and asked: “Does anyone know where the no-high-speed-rail signs come from?”