By JOHN HARVEY
There was a collective sigh of relief among homeowners and businesses around England Street last month when Ashland Mayor James Foley announced the town of Ashland would pledge its support to the western bypass as the “least objectionable” option of the proposed 123-mile high-speed rail project dubbed DC2RVA that would stretch from Washington DC to Richmond.
For many people in the western part of Hanover county, the major comments were hardly welcome news. Lee and Sharon Stanley, who own White Oak Farm, would see their property split in half if the project were to pass. Bob and Carey Carlisle just moved into a house they had built in the area that would be razed altogether.
“I’m sure they’ve heard our voice, but whether they’re paying attention is another thing,” Sharon Stanley said. “It could be that they’ve already made a decision. It’s just hard to know.
“We just kind of feel that this has been thrust upon us,” she continued. It’s a town issue. It’s a town problem. The tracks are already in town and if they’re going to make changes to them, I don’t think it’s fair for the mayor to come out and say the only viable option is to go to the western bypass. That’s just wrong.”
The Stanley family has farmed in Hanover County since 1908. The property once spanned 500 acres. It was passed down, and is now owned by Lee and his brother.
Lee’s section of the farm is used to grow crops like beans, corn and wheat. The portion operated by his brother is used for dairy and maintains approximately 200 cows. According to Stanley, the proposed western bypass would split the two farms in half.
“We’d have to make a big loop to get to the other side of the field,” Lee Stanley said. “You could stand there and look at it, but you’d have to drive seven miles just to get to it. And the equipment doesn’t drive up and down the road very easily.”
The Stanley brothers’ story is not a singular tale. Norman and Carolyn Burnett of Little Bethel Farm and David Hamilton of Stillhouse Spring Farm will also be impacted.
“We’re close to Ashland, so there’s not a lot of farm land really left,” Sharon Stanley said. “From the Carlisle house to here, it cuts through several pieces that they rent and it would be quite a big impact.”
Carey Carlisle and her husband, Bob, owned a horse farm in Ashland off of Cross Corner Road before selling it four years ago to build a new home on a piece of land she named “Countryside.”
“Years ago, I lived further in Montpelier and I would drive out here,” she said. “I loved this piece of land. I was drawn to it. Maybe it was because I needed to save it.”
In 2015, the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation held meetings with local officials regarding the feasibility of high-speed rail through a portion of Ashland. The 123-mile stretch would add an additional rail line and would be part of a larger initiative to connect existing high-speed rail operations as far north as Boston and as far south as Jacksonville, Fla.
Ashland officials balked at initial talks of a third rail and were asked by the state to form a Community Advisory Committee to come up with “the least objectionable alternative” and deliver an endorsement. Citizens in the western part of the county formed their own 501c3, Families Under the Rail, a group committed to opposing new railroad tracks through their community.
She was also served on the CAC board to give citizens in the west a voice in the discussion process. Carlisle said the idea for the trench option through town happened during a CAC meeting that included Jennifer Mitchell, director of the DRPT, Emily Stock, manager of rail planning at the DRPT, and John Mitchell, the lead engineer.
“Going into the CAC, I assumed that we were all going to be at a table and have a discussion,” Carlisle said. “And that we would figure out, after being educated, and we spent quite a few meetings being educated on the laws and engineering. By no means did we have laws or degrees, but we could feel comfortable discussing it.”
Carlisle said there was an unexpected sense of urgency because of the Commonwealth Transportation Board’s timeline. That’s when the rail and transport group challenged the community committee to come up with a least objectionable option at grade and below grade for the East.
The committee worked through both options, and it was determined that an eastern bypass would not work. The level of urgency grew because of the timeline and the rail group asked the committee to instead choose the least objectionable of the West, at grade, below grade, and the East.
“I thought the end result would be a wonderful idea,” Carlisle said. “And even as adults, the unknown is scary, and I understand the people that live along the tracks and their concerns, especially that young family who are apparently very close to the track and don’t know what will happen when construction begins.
The committee then met with Mitchell, Stock and the engineers to talk about options out west. Carlisle said at the meeting, they had big color maps and discussed four options. Carlisle took a Sharpie and circled every home and named the families that lived there at each house that would be affected, including the new house she had just moved into in May.
“I recused myself from a vote because I said there’s no good option for the West,” Carlisle said. “Any vote that I would make, I would have to choose my own house. I could not say, ‘Go that way’ because that is not fair.”
The option recommended by the committee would affect 24 homes and would include six overpasses as it comes off the rail north and rejoins tracks in Elmont.
Carlisle encouraged the citizen committee and the engineers to explore a “trench” option through town. This option would force portions of the downtown area to be closed temporarily for portions of three years during construction. Downtown business owners, council members and homeowners in the area argued this would be catastrophic for the area.
Carlisle saw this as a marketing opportunity for the town.
“Instead of just making lemonade out of lemons, make champagne out of lemons,” Carlisle said. “Even in the worst possible part of construction, the town could market itself. People will come from everywhere to see it if this trench happens. Personally, I was willing to park three blocks away and go in the back door of any and every merchant I needed to.”
Last month, Carlisle and Stanley were at Randolph-Macon College when Hanover County Administrator Cecil “Rhu” Harris and Aubrey “Bucky” Stanley, supervisor of the Beaverdam District, announced that the western bypass was the “least objectionable” option by the citizen committee.
“I was stunned,” Carlisle said. “These people, we had worked together for a year and a half in discussions about this. I know this was a really horrible position for them to be in. In the big meeting, where people did speak about their concerns, I felt (Town manager) Josh Farrar and James Foley did an excellent job of explaining to the town that they’re going to be okay. That was my interpretation. That’s obviously wrong. I didn’t expect it at all. I understand, because this is a businesses and the residents’ life too. I would hope they would understand our alarm.”
Sharon Stanley echoed those concerns.
“To me, it’s a pretty simple thing,” Stanley said. “The town has tracks and they have been there. People have built houses along the tracks and they have businesses and that will be difficult. I feel bad for those people, but it’s an Ashland problem. I don’t feel like they should toss that problem to us because they don’t know what to do about it.
If the western bypass is the option chosen in December, the next big question is logistics about fair market values and when the government would take over the land.
“I don’t know what this means, especially considering this could be 15 to 25 years from happening,” Carlisle said. “What does this mean to me as far as living here? If they buy me out in a year and they declare it, can I live in it until they take it? Can I dismantle it and build it someplace else? Logic says there’ a progression down the tracks, so I know it wouldn’t be tomorrow. My late grandmother said to me, ‘Carey, you’re not going to lie down in front of a bulldozer are you?’ I said, Grams, if I need to, I will.”
A decision on this matter is far from imminent. The public can view and comment on the Environmental Statement during the 60-day comment period. The DPRT will host a public hearing on the issue at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 11 at Patrick Henry High School.
Stanley expects a busy night.
“I definitely think the Western Bypass people are going to speak out,” Stanley said. “To me, it doesn’t matter if we have a historic farm or Carey has a big house or a little house. To me, that’s irrelevant. The point is this is Ashland. This is their problem. It’s a terrible one to have and I feel bad, but they need to work with the railroad and figure this out.”
“We chose to live out in the country where we could hear the rooster and hear the train in the distance,” she said. “They chose to live in a railroad town, on the tracks. How can it be thrown out of town onto us? How can that happen? It just amazes me that they can do that.”