Neighbors Challenge Browns Gap Turnpike Closing

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Paige Ragsdale, Jim Abell, Seth Abell, Lowry Abell, and Joe Jones (not shown due to baling hay) are proposing a detour via the old parallel service road during the planned closure of ½ mile of Browns Gap Turnpike during construction of a new spillway and bridge at Beaver Creek dam in 2024. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

One of the last remaining dairy farms in Albemarle County is threatened by the planned closing of Browns Gap Turnpike during construction of a new spillway at Beaver Creek dam. “I understand the need for progress, but it will create a terrible situation for me,” said Ed Brooking, owner of Early Dawn Dairy on Cow Path Lane, off Browns Gap Turnpike about ¼ mile north of the reservoir. 

“The dairy business is hard enough as it is, with milk consumption and prices way down since 2015.” He bought Early Dawn in 2008 from Wick McNeeley, who in turn bought it from Edgar Garnett, whose family had owned it for nearly 100 years. In fact, the Beaver Creek dam is named in honor of Edgar’s father, Charles Mercer Garnett, Sr., an advocate for good soil conservation practices. “Early Dawn is the largest commercial dairy,” said Ann Mallek in an email. “The smaller Silky Cow at the old Thomas Dairy in North Garden and a new A2A2 producer in Free Union are all that is left from the 50 when I was a kid.”

The Early Dawn Dairy, on Cow Path Lane just north of the Beaver Creek dam, is the last remaining commercial dairy in Albemarle County. The closure of Browns Gap Turnpike will add 10 miles to the trips of large milk and transport trucks accessing the dairy and have a deleterious effect on the business. Photo: Clover Carroll.

Brooking owns 170 Holstein cows that he milks three times a day with a staff of only seven. The dairy produces raw milk, which is transported to Newport News for processing to be bottled for Pet and 7-11. Some also goes to Lynchburg for processing for Kroger Co. “We have tractor trailer trucks that come to pick up our milk every other day in all weathers,” Brooking continued, “plus a big feed truck once a week.” He also grows his own feed—corn and other grain—on his 355-acre farm. “We also haul grain and feed three or four days a week. All of our trips are to and from 250, not from Charlottesville.” 

The Beaver Creek Dam was built in 1963 for water supply storage and flood protection. The reservoir serves as the sole raw water supply for the Crozet Water System. In 2011, the Virginia Dept. of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) upgraded the dam’s classification to “high hazard” which—along with meeting the increasing water demand in the Crozet area over the next 50 years—requires that the capacity of the spillway be increased. “The work at Beaver Creek is required to provide more capacity for water handling during extreme storms. The floodway below the dam has been redrawn by FEMA to extend all the way toward Ivy now,” said Ann Mallek in an email.

The old road and proposed detour is visible above and to the left of the yellow pump house at the foot of Beaver Creek Dam. One of the bridge abutments is also visible; the other abutment still stands behind the pump house, which will be moved to the other side of the reservoir. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

In 2018, the RWSA opted to proceed with design of a labyrinth spillway and chute through the existing dam. This design will require construction of a bridge across the new spillway along Browns Gap Turnpike—which runs over the top of the existing dam—and relocation of the raw water pump station, currently located at the foot, or toe, of the dam (www.rivanna.org/rwsa-projects-map/beaver-creek-improvements).

According to Bill Mawyer, executive director of (RWSA), construction of the new spillway and bridge will necessitate closing ½ mile of Browns Gap Turnpike for 9-12 months. The entire project will take longer—the lower section of the project will take an additional year—but they plan to complete the bridge section first to minimize the inconvenience. Boating access to Beaver Creek reservoir, and use of the reservoir by the WAHS rowing team, will remain open throughout the entire project. However, the closure of Browns Gap Turnpike would require boaters to approach the reservoir by a different route that will add time and distance to the trip (see also crozetgazette.com/2018/07/06/high-water-mark-rwsa-projects-on-the-rise-in-crozet). 

Lowry Abell, who also lives on Cow Path Lane, and other concerned neighbors have started a petition to challenge the road closure. Between hand and online signers at hollerintheholler.com, he has gathered nearly 300 signatures so far. 

Abell and other neighbors have proposed that the old road, which was in use until 1963 and included a bridge over Beaver Creek, be refurbished as a detour during the year-long closing of Browns Gap Turnpike planned for 2024. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

“There are 42 households on Browns Gap Turnpike between the lake and Jones Mill Rd.,” he said—which connects to Rt. 810 just ½ mile south of White Hall. “Plus many people from White Hall, Brown’s Cove, and points north use this road to get to 250 when they go to work. But I am most concerned about access by fire and rescue trucks. It is 3.1 miles from Cow Path Lane to the Crozet firehouse, but 7.1 miles by White Hall Rd. This road closure would add at least 15 minutes to that trip. There was a three-alarm fire at Brooking’s house this May. Fortunately, the fire trucks got there within ten minutes and were able to save the house. If they had had to go all the way through White Hall, the house would have been a total loss. If someone has a stroke or a heart attack, it would take the ambulance double the time than it does now to get here. It’s a matter of health and safety.”

Abell has proposed that RWSA refurbish the original road that runs around the dam parallel to Browns Gap Turnpike as a reasonable detour. This road, part of which is still used as a service road to access the pump station at the toe of the dam, begins just opposite the entrance to Beaver Creek Park, circles to the east around the dam, and rejoins the turnpike just before the intersection with Old Three Notch’d Rd (Rt. 802), at the Mountain Plain Baptist Church. “We used this road to cross Beaver Creek when I was young, up until 1963 when the dam was built,” Abell explained. “The bridge abutments are still there. They only need to replace the bridge itself, clear the overgrowth, and repave it.” Ten concerned neighbors including Abell, Brooking, and Hanna Clark (whose property may be affected by the new pump station location www.crozetgazette.com/2020/08/08/water-pipeline-route-draws-objection/), met with RWSA executive director Bill Mawyer and Ann Mallek, White Hall representative on the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, on September 3 in the Mt. Moriah church parking lot to express their concerns. 

Ed Brooking, owner of Early Dawn Dairy, milks 170 holstein cattle three times a day and grows his own feed on over 200 acres of corn. Photo: Clover Carroll.

“This road has not been used for over 50 years,” Mawyer explained in a recent phone interview. “We plan to work with VDOT to see what is required to reopen this road, but whatever we do must meet VDOT requirements. We will explore current standards and safety issues, which may have changed a lot over 50 years. Although the bridge supports are still there, we will need to do a structural investigation.” Ann Mallek added, “the old road, which has steep approaches on each side, … would require a new (and temporary) bridge to cross the creek on the outfall side. VDOT will have to determine if they would allow those steep connections due to safety during bad weather.” RWSA estimates that it will cost $1 million to reopen the old road. “There are many questions to be answered. Will the road be one or two lanes? Will it be open only to local traffic? Can the bridge support the weight of the dairy trucks? Will school buses be allowed to use it?” Since an entirely new bridge must be built where Browns Gap Turnpike crosses the dam now, staging the construction to keep the road open is not a realistic option, Mawyer explained. At the meeting, the idea of using Jones Mill Rd.—which runs for 2 miles between Browns Gap Turnpike and White Hall Rd.—as a detour was proposed. “Using Jones Mill Rd. is not an option,” said Brooking, and Abell agreed. “That is a twisty, one-lane, largely gravel farm road that is in horrendous condition.” I drove it myself and have to concur. It even had a stream running across it several days after a moderate rain. 

Of course, the main issue is the cost of refurbishing the old road as a viable detour. Construction of the new spillway, bridge, and raw water pump station is estimated to cost $27 million. RWSA recently received a small grant from the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) for the project planning study, and it hopes to receive a larger grant to cover up to 65% of the cost of the project itself. RWSA would pay for the remaining 35%, which would ultimately be passed on to Albemarle County Service Authority (ACSA) ratepayers. They currently pay $4.46 per 1,000 gallons for water at level 1; Abell estimates that the $1 million additional cost for the road upgrade would only add 1½ cents per 1,000 gallons to water bills (serviceauthority.org/customerservices/budgets-rates-and-fees).

During the year that Browns Gap Turnpike is closed, without this detour the dairy trucks would have to go into Crozet via Three Notch’d Rd (Rt 240)—since most can’t fit under the railroad overpass at the Square—and drive out Crozet Ave./White Hall Rd. (Rt. 810) to the northern intersection with Browns Gap Turnpike. “But it’s a terrible right hand turn at the Crozet Dairy Queen for any bigger truck. They have to swing way out, which is dangerous,” Brooking explained. The sharp right turn from White Hall Rd. (Rt. 810) onto Browns Gap is also hazardous, because it is less than a 90 degree angle. “We had a substitute driver about a year ago trying to make that sharp nasty turn with a milk truck who flipped over into the ditch.” Trucks would need to drive another half mile into White Hall, try to turn around—maybe in the Wyant’s Store parking lot—and come back south on Rt 810 to make the easier left turn onto Brown’s Gap. Ann Mallek has “met with VDOT on site about improvements to the northern intersection of Browns Gap and White Hall Road. Improving the turning radius to prevent truck trailers, such as the milk truck, from falling in the ditch on their turn would make the choice of detour safer for the farm vehicles.” Either way, this new route would add at least ten miles to any trip in or out of the dairy,” she reported in an email. 

The construction itself, which was originally scheduled to start in 2021, has been postponed. But although construction of the new spillway and bridge will not begin until 2024, plans for the project are being developed now. According to the RWSA website, the current schedule is:

  • Fall 2020-Summer 2022: Development of a Supplemental Watershed Plan and Environmental Assessment for the Dam and Pump Station Improvements 
  • 2022-2023: Final Design of Dam Bridge and Raw Water Pump Station Improvements
  • 2024-2026: Construction of the dam upgrades, bridge, raw water pump station and intake 

“If it were a month or two, we could figure it out, and we would do what we need to do,” said Brooking. “But a year will put a huge burden on our business from which we might not recover.” 

Abell’s family, friends, and neighbors are joined together in support of this effort, and each member has a role. His cousin Jim Abell—who owned the Abell Brothers Dairy that closed in 2007—is working, along with Joe Jones, with Virginia Delegate Chris Runyon. His daughter, Paige Ragsdale, is the main contact with RWSA and is managing the online petition. Ed Brooking, who is the only Albemarle Co. business other than U.Va. with a DEQ permit, is working with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Abell himself and Jeff Clayton plan to work with NRCS. 

With this kind of teamwork and commitment, success seems likely. “We’re just asking for transparency,” Ragsdale said.  

290 residents have signed the online petition at hollerintheholler.com.

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