Since the crisis over liability for accidents in The Square caused the Buckingham Branch Railroad to assert control over the parking lot in May of 2010 and, by installing a temporary orange plastic fence, to eliminate one row of spaces next to the tracks, a month-to-month deal in which merchants there assume the liability risk has been continuously renewed with no prospect of a long-term solution.
Then, in March, CSX regional vice president for governmental affairs Quintin Kendall visited The Square, joined by BBR officials Steve Powell and Gale Wilson, to assess the problem and then suggest a solution to CSX authorities.
The railroad officials met with local businessmen Rick Ruscher, (Crozet Hardware), John Lawrence (The Mudhouse), Ross Stevens (who owns the Georgetown West building), and White Hall District Supervisor Ann Mallek.
Kendall called the parking lot a “pretty complex issue with tricky property issues,” but added that CSX “wants to resolve this expeditiously and get where everyone wants to be.”
The local merchants argued for a restoration of the earlier status quo, in which cars parked near the rail siding, the custom that prevailed for decades.
“Generally, we want a 50-foot distance from the tracks [to another use] as a safety issue,” Kendall said firmly. The railroad wants access to the main line (the tracks nearest to Crozet Library) the two sidings where track repair equipment is often parked, and, especially, the trestle over Rt. 240, Powell said.
“We’re pretty adamant about the 50 feet,” said Kendall.
Ruscher explained that until 12 years ago businesses on The Square paid annual rent to CSX for use of the parking lot. They were told by the county to stop paying the rent because CSX didn’t own the land. About five years later, CSX reasserted ownership.
The problem of ownership remains, said Mallek. “Nobody can prove their ownership,” she emphasized. The railroad originally leased the land—in the 1800s—for a freight station from a family named White. No heirs of that family have been found since the county first began investigating legal ownership more than a decade ago. Meanwhile the county has been billing CSX for the real estate tax on the disputed area.
Mallek said she wants CSX to execute a quit claim deed giving the county ownership of as much of the parking area as the railroad can spare. The county cannot make improvements on property it does not own or substantially control, such as though a 99-year lease, she explained. She suggested a parking design with angled slots that does not force cars to back out into the travel lanes of The Square. She also produced aerial photographs of the Square that showed the VDOT easement and the area available for parking. She implied that if possession could be settled, improvements to the lot might be made as part of the Crozet Avenue street upgrades expected to begin this fall.
Stevens next pulled out a 50-foot tape and Kendall and Wilson measured off the boundary that would be 50 feet from the main line, delineating it by setting up a string of beer bottles from those that littered the area behind the fence. The line ran about 12 feet uphill from the hemlock tree.
“I get your point that we need a level of certainty here,” said Kendall. “Headquarters has a lot of interest in getting this resolved. The next step is I’ll review the plats and we’ll dialog about various options.”