The Manassas Battlefield has become the scene of yet another irreconcilable conflict: this one between VDOT’s road-building plans, park service preservation goals and local residents protecting their way of life.
by James A. Bacon
As superintendent of the Manassas National Battlefield Park, Ed Clark enjoys regaling visitors with stories about the colorful characters who took part in two of the most important battles of the Civil War. But the administrative aspects of his job require most of his attention. Clark oversees the restoration of historical structures in the park and the updating of exhibits. He directs the plan for restoring the landscape to its 1862 form, which means cutting down some of the woods that have grown up since then, replacing invasive trees with native species, and doing something about those confounded deer. He keeps careful tabs on the private property inside the park and on its periphery. He would love to buy out the handful of property owners who still live within the official park boundaries, and he dreams of acquiring select properties outside the boundaries.
But Clark’s biggest preoccupation these days is traffic… rush hour traffic. The theme that animates his thoughts is how to improve the experience of the roughly 600,000 people who visit the park each year. And traffic congestion, he says, is ruining that experience.
About 24,000 vehicles per day use two two-lane roads — U.S. 29 (Lee Highway) and Rt. 234 (Sudley Road) — that intersect in the heart of the battlefield park. The two roads are direct descendants of the old Warrenton Turnpike and a local dirt road that played key roles during the battles. Clark knows they can’t be restored to their primitive, 19th-century condition but he’s not happy with the way they have been co-opted as regional transportation arteries serving the development sprouting all around in western Prince William County.
For three to four hours each morning and then each evening, traffic stacks up at the intersection near the old Stone House, one of the most visible battlefield landmarks. The driving tour, which many people take because the distances are too far flung to walk within the seven-square-mile park, requires crossing that intersection eight times. “The traffic detracts from the visitor experience,” says Clark. “Basically, it shuts down the park to visitors.”
The superintendent now finds himself embroiled in a political slugfest worthy of the artillery duel where General Thomas J. Jackson was said to stand as steadfast as a stone wall. But the 21st-century conflict is more complex and more drawn out. Manassas Battlefield sits athwart the route of a four- to six-lane highway that the McDonnell administration wants to run from the City of Manassas past Dulles airport. Local landowners, smart growth groups and even many local Republican legislators don’t want to see this rural corner of Northern Virginia developed.
Clark says he is doing his best to reconcile the park service’s preservation goals with McDonnell administration transportation policy, all the while respecting the rights of local landowners. He is negotiating a “programmatic agreement” with the Virginia Department of Transportation that would allow the state to run a major north-south highway past the western edge of the park, sharing alignment with a portion of a planned battlefield bypass that will loop around the northern periphery. In exchange, the park service would get to close the north-south segment of Rt. 234 inside the park and, when the bypass is complete sometime in the indefinite future, close the east-west segment of Rt. 29.
“We’re at the end game of a lot of conversations,” he says. Now the negotiations have boiled down to minimizing the footprint of the highway and mitigating its noise and visual impact.
But Clark may not be as close to the end game as he thinks. Only recently have citizens gotten wind of the details of the draft programmatic agreement, and they’re fired up.
“We feel like sacrificial lambs. Our way of life, our quality of life, our ability to live here” are all threatened,” says Page Snyder, daughter of the legendary Annie Snyder, who successfully spear-headed resistance to a regional mega-mall next to the battlefield park in 1988 and a Disney theme park five years later.
Snyder is one of roughly 100 property owners along Pageland Lane who will be directly affected by the agreement. But neither she nor they act like lambs being led to slaughter. Local foes of the proposed plan have packed public gatherings by the hundreds, joined forces with Smart Growth groups, recruited six Republican General Assembly members and Rep. Frank Wolf, R-10th, to their side, extracted a promise from the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) to delay accepting a Master Plan for the proposed North-South Corridor of Statewide Significance, and persuaded the Prince William board to delay a vote affirming its support for the Bi-County Parkway, the linchpin of the North-South Corridor.
The outcome appears very much up in the air.
The roads running through the Manassas National Battlefield Park have been the fodder for discussion since the 1930s. Even back then, says Clark, park officials wanted to relocate U.S. 29 out of the battlefield. In 1980 Congressional legislation declared that the park should make land available to the commonwealth of Virginia to build a bypass for Rt. 234. In 1988, another law called for building a bypass around the battlefield. For all the talk, those plans went nowhere fast.
Meanwhile, VDOT was pushing for a north-south route that would skirt the battlefield, first a proposal for a 234 Bypass Extended in 1988, a Western Transportation Corridor in 1997, and the Tri-County Parkway in 2005. The Tri-County Parkway study was shelved until the McDonnell administration revived it, relabeling it as the Bi-County Parkway.
The revived planning for the Bi-County Parkway didn’t gain much public attention until the McDonnell administration in May 2011 persuaded the CTB to add a new Corridor of Statewide Significance to its official list of state corridors. Unlike the other corridors, which are based on existing interstates and major state highways, the so-called North-South corridor was purely aspirational. Only pieces of it existed. The administration’s plan was to splice together a patchwork of projects: incorporating the existing Prince William County Parkway on Rt. 234 south of Manassas; widening Northstar Boulevard, tagged by Loudoun County for a major expansion in the north; and building the Bi-County Parkway to link them. Additionally, a spur would connect Dulles airport.
Appointing Deputy Secretary of Transportation David Tyeryar as its point man on the project, the administration jump-started planning for the North-South Corridor and fast-tracked negotiations with the National Park Service over the Bi-County Parkway. Tyeryar did not respond to a Bacon’s Rebellion request for an interview. But in public statements, he and other administration officials have given two primary justifications for the corridor. First, the highway is needed to accommodate population growth in western Prince William and eastern Loudoun Counties over the next three decades. Second, the corridor is needed to stimulate the growth of the air cargo industry at Dulles airport. (See “The North-South Divide” for a discussion of these issues.)
The fate of the North-South Corridor will rise and fall upon the outcome of the debate over the Bi-County Parkway, the most contentious of the highway segments. The route must pass through the battlefield park and Prince Williams’ Rural Crescent preservation area, the scene of epic controversies in the past over development proposals that would breach its boundaries. Complicating matters, the National Park Service, not normally a player in Virginia road projects, has its own set of priorities.
Clark’s goal is to optimize the experience for park visitors, and that means converting U.S. 29 and Rt. 234 into park roads used only by park visitors, not commuters. Clark is careful to state that he wants to preserve access for neighbors living in enclaves not yet incorporated into the park. But he’s also candid that he would like to be able eventually to buy out those property owners and to expand into the historic district along Pageland Lane where significant battlefield action took place.
At the same time, Clark acknowledges the importance of U.S. 29 and Rt. 234 for local commuting patterns. He cannot close the two roads until he gets the battlefield bypass built — and there’s no money for the bypass in sight. He figures that he can get about one-third of it built by collaborating with VDOT to build the Bi-County Parkway. But VDOT envisions the Parkway as a four- to six-lane highway laden with cargo trucks zooming back and forth from Dulles. “What we don’t want this to become,” he says, “is an outer beltway.”
The current draft of the programmatic agreement, says Clark, limits the freeway adjoining the battlefield to a four-lane road. VDOT won’t be able to come back later and decide to widen it. Says he: “This is a four-lane road and always will be a four-lane road, nothing but a four-lane road.”
In the agreement, VDOT also gives the park service $3 million to acquire more land or conservation easements to expand the park. Says Clark: “There are two neighborhoods we’d like to buy.”.
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If those were the only moving parts to the deal, it might not be so difficult to wrap up. But the agreement gets knottier. First is the timing of the road closures. Under the draft programmatic agreement, VDOT will abandon Rt. 234 upon completion of the Bi-County Parkway. At that point, the NPS will incorporate the two-lane road into the park as an internal road closed to outside traffic.
But there’s a potential sticking point. Trip Pollard, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) argues that Prince William County arguably possesses the legal authority to take over any part of Route 234 that VDOT abandons. Once it has taken over, he says, Prince William could decide to keep the road open. Clark ascknowledges that the concern is a valid one and says he is working to address it through a change to the programmatic agreement.
There’s another big problem: No funds have been allocated to complete the battlefield bypass. VDOT will provide no money for construction and right-of-way acquisition, although it will provide preliminary engineering and design. Clark says he is hopeful that Congress will appropriate some money, but there are no commitments at this point. Unless the bypass is complete, the NPS agrees, U.S. 29 through the park cannot be closed.
The irony is, closing Rt. 234 to through traffic and taking down the traffic-clogging stop light at the intersection with U.S. 29 would eliminate a major source of congestion on U.S. 29. The highway then would become more attractive, not less, as a commuter route. Therefore, VDOT has agreed to install “traffic-calming” devices. It is not clear what those devices might be or how severely they would constrict traffic, although the budget would be limited to $300,000 under the draft programmatic agreement.
One more complication. How many interchanges will there be along the 10.4-mile Bi-County Parkway, what will they look like, and how much will they spur development in the Rural Crescent?
There will be a modification to an existing interchange on I-66 at the southern terminus, says Maria Sinner, VDOT project manager for the Bi-County Parkway. There also will be a “connector” — something less than a cloverleaf interchange — in the Catharpin area north of the battlefield, with details to be determined in the design phase. There will be no connector at the intersection of U.S. 29… until the battlefield bypass is built. The configuration of that connector has yet to be designed. Finally, there will be at least three interchanges or connectors in Loudoun County, where the highway would run both through Loudoun’s rural Transition Area and then through areas zoned for higher density north of Braddock Road.
Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, worries that Clark has not nailed down protections for the park as tightly as he thinks he has. “For too long the negotiation has been based upon the inevitability that VDOT was going to build a highway rather than keep on the table lower impact alternatives, causing the park service to negotiate within that framework,” he says. “Clark, at this point, does not have an agreement that truly locks in keeping the traffic out of the battlefield. He doesn’t have a commitment from VDOT to close 29, at least not until the battlefield bypass is built,” possibly in 2035.
Furthermore, with one connector a few miles north of the battlefield and three more in Loudoun County, the Bi-County Parkway would stimulate development and swamp local roads with traffic, Schwartz says. Already, Corbelis Development NoVA LLC has petitioned Loudoun County to rezone 737 acres from one home per three acres to one home per acre — an addition of 802 units — in anticipation of the Bi-County Parkway. Schwartz expects more such requests. Numerous large parcels have been traded hands in recent years, suggesting a growing interest by land speculators.
The bottom line, says Schwartz: “You would have this new highway running north-south and a wide-open 29 through the battlefield, generating more traffic due to the development it would bring. You don’t have an adequately defined solution for maintaining access to services for local residents.”
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Charlie Grymes, chairman of the Prince William Conservation Alliance, lives in a subdivision of 25 houses grandfathered into the battlefield park. He has lived there nearly 30 years, and he’s in no mood to move. While the Loudoun and Prince William chambers of commerce tout the North-South corridor as a tool to stimulate air cargo business at Dulles, bringing warehouses, distribution centers and jobs, he’s not persuaded.
“It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars to speculate on government-funded stimulus projects to spur further development at Dulles airport,” he says. If the commonwealth wants to spur economic growth in the region, he adds, it would accomplish more by using the money to fix overloaded commuting corridors like Interstate 66.
Even if the highway does attract growth, he says, economic development will occur in Loudoun County, which has zoned for it. Prince William has planned for growth in the eastern side of the county around the Quantico Marine Corps base. “The benefits are not evenly matched between the jurisdictions,” he says. “Prince William gets stuck and Loudoun gets the economic benefit.”
Residents of western Prince William County see little up-side to the Bi-County Parkway. They rarely have reason to drive to Loudoun County. But they are very concerned what will happen when Rt. 234 and U.S. 29 are closed. Diverted traffic will swamp the local two-lane roads they rely upon to get around and make congestion on I-66 even worse.
Nowhere are people more fired up than along Pageland Lane. The proposed route for the Bi-County Parkway would slice across Pageland, effectively turning the road into a cul de sac.
“Gainesville is a five-minute trip for us,” says Mary Ann Ghadban. That’s where Pageland residents go to visit the doctor and the hospital, and do their shopping. “This will turn it into a 30-minute trip.”
Pageland residents contend that the closing off of Pageland Lane, the building of a limited-access highway practically through their front yards, and travel restrictions on U.S. 29 and Rt. 234 will render their properties almost valueless, making them easy pickings for the Park Service, which, courtesy of VDOT, will have $3 million to buy land or acquire easements.
Another source of concern is the fate of Sudley United Methodist Church north of the battlefield. The church congregation dates back to 1789, and the first church building served as a field hospital during both battles of Manassas. Many of the 700 members depend upon Rt. 234 to reach the church, church member Tom Thompson, told the CTB in a May session. “The closure of 234 will kill it.”
Ghadban and others also contend they were never given adequate notice of what VDOT had planned. State authorities did hold hearings regarding the North-South Corridor — one right before Christmas and another right after New Year’s — but the presentations were so devoid of detail as to be meaningless. She didn’t get wind of what was in the draft programmatic agreement, Ghadban says, until the state granted her a conservation easement on her property and Clark, the park superintendent, called her to urge her not to grant the easement because it would interfere with plans for the parkway.
Page Snyder, hosted the 150th anniversary of the first Battle of Manassas on her property in an event that attracted hundreds of Civil War re-enactors. In the run-up to the event, she was in frequent contact with Clark, she says, but he never once mentioned that he was deep in negotiations with VDOT. “I don’t think he thought about the consequences for the people who lie here,” she says.
Says Ghadban: “We’re collateral damage.”
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It’s easy to say, “No,” to a project. But what’s the alternative? This January a coalition of smart-growth and conservation groups — including the Coalition for Smarter Growth, the Piedmont Environmental Council, the Southern Environmental Law Center, the National Parks Conservation Association and the National Trust of Historic Preservation — presented an updated list of alternative projects designed to improve east-west and north-south mobility in Northern Virginia’s suburban frontier without the necessity of building the Bi-County Parkway.
A key assumption underpinning the “Updated Composite Alternative” is that east-west transportation flows are a major challenge right now while demand for north-south mobility is more speculative and not likely to materialize for many years. Broadly speaking, the smart-growth alternative contains three main components:
- Roads. Upgrade key chokepoints, such as those on Route 28, to improve the functionality of existing north-south movement east of the airport. Especially critical are improvements to the I-66/Route 28 interchange, which would ease east-west travel.
- Transit. Upgrade I-66 and Route 50 to accommodate High Occupancy Vehicle trips, Bus Rapid Transit or even rail.
- Roundabouts. Construct roundabouts at several busy intersections on smaller roads such as Gum Springs Road, Pageland Lane and Sudley Road.
Roundabouts are cost-effective upgrades for traffic signals at the intersections of two-lane, country roads. VDOT resists them, says smart growth advocates, but roundabouts have been deployed with great success in the Route 50 traffic-calming project in Loudoun County,
The Updated Composite Alternative provides no estimates for how much its recommendations cost, how well it would address current traffic conditions or how how well it would accommodate future growth in the region. VDOT has analyzed the alternative in a hefty document of roughly 150 pages, said Schwartz with the Coalition for Smarter Growth, but, as of this writing, he and his partners have not completed their review of the highly technical report, so he is not yet willing to characterize its contents or comment upon it.
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Robert Lee Hodge, a 46-year-old videographer, lives miles away in Arlington County but he takes an intense interest in the Manassas Battlefield. A Civil War enthusiast, he is best known for his documentary about the Battle of Franklin near Nashville and posing for the cover of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Confederates in the Attic,” by Tony Horwitz. Although he wears 21st-century jeans and collared shirts around town, he sports a bushy beard and unkempt hair straight out of a Matthew Brady daguerreotype.
On the 150th anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas, Hodge took part in a re-enactment held on Page Snyder’s farm. He camped out there and then, in 120-degree heat-index heat, participated in the portrayal of the Second Mississippi infantry. He has a deep and abiding love for the battlefield and he has taken a great interest in its preservation.
Hodge appreciates the many different perspectives of the people involved. He sympathizes with Ed Clark’s goal of dialing back traffic at the intersection by the old Stone House. He still remembers when he visited the park for the first time in 1991 and how he was “saddened” by traffic gridlock there. He also says that he likes Sean Connaughton, the former Prince William County board chairman-turned Secretary of Transportation who is an animating force behind the North-South Corridor. “I thought he was a decent chairman.”
Hodge readily concedes that there are no easy answers, no simple solutions, only difficult trade-offs. But in the final analysis, he sees the Bi-County Parkway as short-term coping mechanism, not a solution. “It’s like the field of dreams — build it and they will come. More roads will mean more property to develop. … I know from past history that local boards of supervisors are intoxicated with the idea of expanding tax revenue. … Any road expansion will further encapsulate the battlefield.”
“A lot of decisions are being made for the short term,” Hodge says. “But future generations will have to deal with the mistakes.”
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