VDOT Priorities Frustrate St. George Residents

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Street mural on St. George Avenue

A bright bit of street art was painted by St. George Avenue residents at the intersection of Crozet Avenue and St. George Road over Thanksgiving weekend in November. The mural was a collaborative effort among neighbors concerned about cars speeding through the intersection and the lack of attention to the problem by county and state officials, particularly in the wake of an accident on St. George in February of 2021 involving a four-year-old boy.

Kelsey Fatsi, a neighbor and art therapist, was one of the mural artists and described the project’s evolution. “We felt defeated after VDOT [Virginia Department of Transportation] didn’t prioritize our street’s safety, so we began to research other ways of slowing down traffic and creating a safer community,” she said. “Many studies have been done that prove creating art in the streets slows traffic, brings a sense of belonging to a community, and regenerates a sense of local identity. After beginning down the path of working with VDOT, it was clear that going that route was a dead end, so we decided to try a different tactic.”

The mural’s design honored Crozet’s past and present, centering a large, pink Crozet rose surrounded by a colorful railroad track. “The train cars each hold an important aspect of the area—wildlife, the natural world, the prosperous land,” said Fatsi. “The final two cars symbolize the street’s namesake, St. George, fighting in his famous battle against the dragon.” Fatsi circulated resources and links to information on public art for interested residents.

VDOT representatives arrived on site shortly after the mural’s completion and told neighbors that the art installation violated county code and would have to be removed, either by neighbors or by VDOT at the neighbors’ expense, according to Elias Fatsi, Kelsey’s husband. The artists were told to expect a formal letter from VDOT about the matter, though no letter arrived over the ensuing weeks. In response to inquiries, the Gazette received a statement from VDOT Public Affairs Manager Lou Hatter indicating that, for now, the artwork would be allowed to stay.

A street mural appeared on St. George Avenue over the Thanksgiving holiday. Photo: Mike Marshall.

“VDOT does not have a policy in place to address murals and other art within the travel way on state-maintained roads,” read the statement. “We do not endorse the placement of art like what is in place in Crozet, but we will not use state resources to remove it at this time. However, in a situation where roadway art presents a safety hazard, such as creating a distraction for drivers or if it interferes with traffic control markings, it will be removed. When the road is repaved, VDOT will not replace the artwork.”

St. George neighbors were briefly jubilant until VDOT subsequently reversed course. In a second set of comments to the Gazette, Hatter said the street mural had been reclassified as a safety hazard after VDOT fielded complaints from local residents. “We have received some additional feedback from community members regarding the St. George Avenue street mural, and have heard that it’s a distraction for drivers going through the intersection,” he said. “We’ve also heard that children are attracted to the area and have been playing around it, which means it’s hazardous at this point. So, because of this new information, we have to treat the mural as a safety hazard and will be removing it next week.”

VDOT workers came out to measure the mural during the week before Christmas and neighbors expect it to be removed imminently, even as they engage in a last-ditch email campaign to VDOT officials in support of the project. “If just a few community members can influence their decision to remove the mural, then we’d like to show them how many other people view it positively and find it beneficial,” said Elias Fatsi. “Maybe they’ll change their minds again.”

As of press time the mural is still in place, but if the art is removed, Kelsey Fatsi will be deeply disappointed. “I’m sad and sorry that it was not more of a widely known project, and we are hoping that it creates a conversation around re-visiting antiquated laws that are in place,” she said. Given that neighbors have pleaded for action at the St. George intersection for almost a year since the accident, the irony of VDOT’s rapid response to the mural is not lost on her. 

“It took seven years for VDOT to replace a sidewalk on St. George Avenue that caused a severe injury to an elder,” she said. “For them to so quickly remove this mural is frustrating because we feel like, where were you for the actual safety measures that we wanted?” 

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Lisa Martin joined the Gazette in 2017 and writes about education and local government. She also writes in-depth pieces about division-wide education issues and broader investigative pieces on topics from recycling to development to living with wildlife. Her Coyotes in Crozet story won a 2017 Virginia Press Association “Best in Show” award for the Gazette. Martin has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, taught college for several years, and writes fiction and poetry. She co-authored a children’s trilogy about two adventuring cats, the Anton and Cecil series, which got rave reviews from the New York Times Book Review, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and others.

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