Is there still time to rethink Rt. 15?

Planning Commissioners weigh traffic calming US 15 vs. building ‘de facto Outer Beltway’

By Laura Longley

‘It’s not perfunctory,” said Forest Hayes, chair of the Loudoun County Planning Commission, at its Nov. 30, 2021, meeting. “It’s a monumental responsibility to consider making changes to the body of work known as the Comprehensive Plan of 2019.”  

With that point and a unanimous vote to move a controversial Comprehensive Plan Amendment to their next work session, the planning commissioners put the brakes on the County’s plan to further expand US Rt. 15 north of Leesburg to a point just shy of the two-lane Point of Rocks Bridge and the Maryland state line. The construction project would also incorporate a bypass of the historic rural village of Lucketts. It would cost half a billion dollars—a number missed by no one in the audience or on the dais.

The proposed US 15 expansion would wipe out half the barn and the silo, farmers market, all the mature trees, the septic for Christ Church Episcopal, as well as the Lucketts Store.

The commissioner’s vote did not come, however, until the largest number of speakers ever to attend a Planning Commission meeting had their say—with nearly 95 percent of the 28 or so in attendance voicing their opposition to turning a two-lane, undivided rural roadway into a four-lane, median-divided highway or, as one neighbor described it, a “de facto Outer Beltway.”

Three or four speakers representing upscale developments along 15, such as Raspberry Falls and Selma Estates, brought up their concerns about safety in exiting the communities’ driveways and how more traffic lights would solve those problems.

For the Lucketts village residents, those safety problems were among their concerns, too. But they also worry whether the Lucketts Elementary schoolchildren can get to and from school safely, whether their driving-age offspring can enter and drive the road safely, and whether their police have sturdy shoulders along the road to pull over speeding vehicles. The County staff plan calls for a speed limit of 50 mph.

Avis Renshaw, owner of the 400-acre Lost Corner Farm and Mom’s Apple Pie Bakery, painted an alarming picture. “Anyplace that Rt. 15 is four lanes it will be subject to even more aggressive driving.” She gave an example of the relentless traffic impact on farming in the area. “We depend on the farm support businesses in Lucketts like Stanford Excavating and Coopers Welding. John Stanford has for many years had to plan his equipment entrances onto 15. He does it at Zero Dark Thirty on Sunday mornings because of the aggressive traffic that will not even let his equipment get on the roadway from Lucketts. We worry that…our inability to drive safely on a faster four-lane road will stymie or force farm-based businesses out of the area. You don’t want that.”

Several individuals representing conservation and preservation groups broached the historical, aesthetic, and environmental impacts of the road. Michael Myers, executive director of the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, cited the irreplaceable wetlands of the JK Black Oak Wildlife Sanctuary west of village. William Sellers, president of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground, emphasized the importance of this National Scenic Byway to the 180-mile Journey corridor that stretches from Gettysburg to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville. From the planning documents, however, it’s clear the County staff has been directed by Loudoun’s supervisors to incorporate the Journey’s design guidelines only “where feasible.”

The project’s costs will be borne by Loudoun taxpayers, current and future. James Williams, a real estate developer for 45 years who represented the Potomac Overlook Association, took that issue head on. “Let’s not spend half a billion dollars of our community’s hard-earned tax dollars on some of the ideas that have been presented here this evening. Let’s spend them on our children, our schools. Let’s spend them on our fire and rescue. Let’s spend them on our law enforcement…Let’s not spend these monies for the benefit of commuters that come across the Maryland bridge. It doesn’t make sense to me to spend my tax dollars, your tax dollars for those commuters. Instead, consider the alternatives that are in our well thought-out 2019 Comp Plan …There are better solutions than those that are here on the table.”

Evan McCarthy of the Piedmont Environmental Council concurred. “Commuter needs should not override the local Lucketts community needs. Immediate improvements can be made at significantly reduced cost to improve safety in the entire corridor and should occur without further delay. These improvements should not impact the community negatively.”

Owners of Lucketts businesses focused on the area’s mushrooming rural economy and how, if Rt. 15 were to become a four-lane highway, you could say goodbye to current or future businesses such as Rich Rosendale’s Roots 657 Café and Market on Spinks Ferry Road, Jonathan Staples’ 63-acre, family-owned Vanish Brewery off Black Hops Lane, Brossman’s Farm Market, Black Sheep Farm, Hidden Brook Winery, bed and breakfasts, wedding and events venues, and countless more.

Anyone who questions that scenario might look at US 50. Imagine how a four-lane highway and bypasses of Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville might have changed the landscape for rural businesses. Would the area still be a mecca for rural tourism without its green fields of horses and cattle? Would there be Chrysalis, Cana, 50 West, and Greenhill vineyards? Would the Red Fox Inn get much business if there were a bypass around Middleburg? Would the five-star Salamander Resort & Spa ever have been built?

That’s not fantasy.

In the early 1990s, VDOT and the County proposed four-lanes and bypasses on both US 50 and VA 9. Like US 15, both roads were congested and the villages unsafe. Only intense community opposition, the residents’ own work with international transportation design expert Ian Lockwood, and active partnerships and funding by VDOT, the Virginia Transportation Authority, the Commonwealth of Virginia and a federal demonstration grant obtained by then-Rep. Frank Wolf and the late Sen. John Warner stopped US 50’s expansion in the planning stages. The final product is a national model of traffic calming.

At that time, traffic calming plans for Hillsboro and Rt. 9 in the northwest quadrant of the County began moving along the same promising path—until 2007 when the community was forced to beat back a second bypass proposal.

According to the website of their ultimately successful “ReThink9” project, completed just this summer, “a subsequent impact analysis revealed that project would have induced even greater volumes of traffic and likely would have led to significant development along the corridor. Land acquisition, litigation, design, and construction were estimated to be more than $100 million.”

It is not the job of the planning commissioners to develop traffic signal solutions or design bypass alignments, but they are free to explore alternative plans and recommend further staff work before advising the Board of Supervisors to amend—or not amend—the 2019 Comprehensive Plan.

While the Lucketts area residents continue to press their case for traffic calming, the commissioners will head out to Hillsboro on Rt. 9 to see how the design system works.

“Be progressive planners,” implored Avis Renshaw. “Study the current trends that are reversing big highways built in places like the Bronx and New Orleans. Don’t make the same mistakes in Loudoun in 2021 that they made back in the ‘60s. Please make safety improvements that retain the environmentally sensitive karst area through which this byway traverses and maintain the functionality of our small businesses and village of Lucketts.”

Asked by his fellow commissioners to compare the US 15 widening plan to the VA 9/Hillsboro traffic calming project he spearheaded as town mayor, Roger Vance replied, “Clearly there’s a lot of information and questions that need to be ferreted out here. We need to be sure we understand the goals of the project.

“Roundabouts work,” he emphasized. “A system of roundabouts creates a safe environment and facilitates traffic. Come to Hillsboro,” he added.  “I was told 20 years ago that everything that we’ve just accomplished in Hillsboro could not and would not be done and would not work. We’ve just completed a post-construction study, and some of the results are pretty amazing.”

The Planning Commission work session is set for Thurs., Jan. 13 from 6 to 10 p.m. The public may attend in person at the Government Center or visit Loudoun.gov/meetings for online access.

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