A project to construct a new intersection on Crozet Avenue for the new Main Street, creating the corner where the new library will be built, as well as to improve Crozet Avenue with turn lanes and wider sidewalks and pull utility poles off it, is essentially stalled for lack of easement agreements, Albemarle County facilities development director Trevor Henry reported to the Crozet Community Advisory Council at its August 20 meeting.
The project, first announced in September 2007 and then expected to be completed by last winter, is expected to take a year to build once it is able to start, Henry said. Earlier estimates put the construction timeline at six to nine months. County officials say the money to pay for the project is already allocated.
“The project is designed and in final review [by county inspectors],” Henry said, “and right now we are within budget.”
In March, he and County Engineer Jack Kelsey began meeting privately with the 24 property owners along the road who will have to sign utility and property easements, some potentially surrendering land, in order for construction to proceed. So far four have signed, including CSX railroad, which owns the parking lot in The Square, and Bank of America. Henry said corporations can be tough to get easements from and he was somewhat surprised that they had agreed before others who are local.
“It’s a somewhat arduous process ,” Henry said. “Normally it involves a couple of conversations [with owners] and adjustments to the design.” He said utility relocations would be fed from High Street on the east and Carter Street on the west and supply Crozet Avenue buildings from behind. The Virginia Department of Highways will review the street plans once all the easements and utilities changes are in place.
Henry said he estimated that 10 property owners are probable signees and the remaining 10 are “holdouts” over parking and construction schedule issues.
“We’ll always maintain access to businesses on Crozet Avenue,” Henry said. “We’ll use the Downtown Mall model,” referring to the tight management of construction phases that kept interference with Charlottesville businesses there to a minimum. “We’ll just shut one lane [of Crozet Avenue] at a time and we’ll work in off hours in the case of one business that could be blocked.”
County community relations director Lee Catlin said, “We’ve done what we can to get it going. We need community support.” She suggested that CCAC members “talk it up” with the reluctant property owners.
But members resisted that idea, not wanting to stick their nose into the property owners’ business and reluctant to give an impression of arm-twisting.
Downtown Crozet Association president Sandy Wilcox, who has not signed easements bearing on his property, the Blue Goose Building, was present with a handful of other downtown property owners.
“I don’t think you’re going about it the right way,” he said to County leaders. “The property owners are not looking at it like they should be grateful [for the project]. They’re worried they will be put out of business. We’ve all got to get in a room together. People are being asked to give away property in exchange for what could be a real mess.”
Henry agreed that some amount of the delay in getting signatures is because owners are not sure of what other owners might agree to.
CCAC chair Mike Marshall suggested that the county follow up on lumber yard owner Carroll Conley’s offer to open an unused but platted right of way, labeled on surveys as Oak Street, that would connect new Main Street with The Square. Conley said he would convey the street if the County would build Main Street to his property line and thereby allow his trucks an easier access to Crozet Avenue than coming through The Square. Drawings suggest that Main Street will in fact extend that far to allow access to the new library’s parking lot. That would create a two-way detour route during construction, possibly speeding the work. Current plans call for the alley along Crozet Hardware to function as the detour. Marshall also suggested that the County commit to its promises about access, timelines and construction supervision in writing to give owners more confidence in the project. CCAC members expressed concern that further delay risks losing a favorable construction climate and worried that the existing budget might turn out to be inadequate if prices change. White Hall Supervisor Ann Mallek also warned that Supervisors might want to divert the money to another project if it appears no progress will be made.
Wilcox proposed that the CCAC sponsor a meeting that would bring together all affected property owners “to hash it out.” County officials could update the group on the status of the project and then leave the room so that owners could discuss the situation among themselves. “We need the information but we don’t need the sell,” Wilcox said. “There is not a business owner there who does not want the town center concept to succeed. They’re skeptical because of what they’ve heard from friends in Scottsville [where as similar project went bad]. They are afraid of losing their business. But if downtown fails, they could lose it too.”
This idea won the backing of the CCAC and a meeting is being arranged for mid-September.