Updated 1/24/2023: The print version of this article incorrectly estimated Free Union’s population to be 86. The correct number is 187.
Residents of Free Union have been unsettled by cryptic notices from the U.S. Postal Service posted and mailed out in recent months. The notices say that “because the landlord has declined to extend the current lease [on the Free Union post office building], a new facility in Free Union is needed.” The Postal Service proposes “moving to a new building of approximately 600 square feet within a mile of the current facility,” and asserts that “the new facility will maintain the same level of service.”
These statements are the sum total of the information given to Free Union citizens, who are left wondering about both the decision process and the potential outcomes. “The community is concerned about the lack of transparency on the part of the post office, and its lack of willingness to have an in-person meeting with us,” said Margaret Maupin, long-time Free Union resident. “The motives of the USPS are suspect, as we learned some years ago when they cleverly attempted to close down the Free Union branch for good. If not for the dogged work by local community members Joanne Hayden and Janis Jaquith we probably would have lost our P.O.”
Like Crozet, Free Union is a “census-designated place” (not a town), and its 2020 population was estimated to be 187. Postal service was established there in 1847, and the area’s current low, brick post office structure on Free Union Road (Rt. 601) was built in 1968. These days, the post office serves 382 mailboxes and another 360 post office boxes. The next closest post office is in Earlysville, more than seven miles away.
The first notice of the potential relocation was posted on the door of the Free Union post office in July. It announced a 30-day comment period during which residents could send their thoughts by mail to a Postal Service address in Greensboro, NC. Shortly after the notice went up, Maupin and Jaquith of Free Union’s Homemakers group facilitated a well-attended community meeting at the Free Union Church of the Brethren to discuss the issue.
“I think people left the meeting feeling pretty relaxed about the closing notice,” said resident and attendee Kerin Yates. The reason for optimism was a comment made by Peter Stoudt, a Free Union resident who over the last decade has acquired several parcels of land along the southwest side of Free Union Road—including the parcels on either side of the post office. “He got up and said that they [Stoudt and his wife Alice Handy] were very much supportive of having the post office remain where it was,” said Yates.
Meeting-goers interpreted Stoudt’s comment as an offer to provide a space for the relocated post office somewhere within his holdings as they are developed. “Peter Stoudt told us in the meeting that he was in communication with the USPS and that plans were underway to relocate our post office to a building on Stoudt’s property at the back corner of the site of the former Maupin Bros. Store,” said Jaquith.
“Since then, as far as I know, there has been no information from Peter Stoudt or from the USPS about relocating to this property—just the flyer recently sent by the USPS saying they are still looking for a place to relocate our post office,” she said. “This appears to me to be a major failure to communicate with the community. Is this failure intentional or strategic? I have no idea.”
Ann Mallek, Board of Supervisors White Hall District representative, has tried to contact Stoudt to ask about his interest in saving the post office, to no avail, and he did not respond to a request for comment for the Gazette. Other Free Union residents with key perspectives on the relocation issue have also declined to comment, including Melissa Bailey, the owner of the current post office property who has declined to extend the current lease, and Evette Barton, Free Union postmaster since 2014.
A new source of consternation arrived in December, as Free Union residents received a U.S. Postal Service mailer re-announcing the post office relocation and establishing a second 30-day comment period. The mailer did not describe the current state of the search process, nor why a second round of comments was necessary absent any change in the plan, leading residents to wonder if the Stoudt deal fell through and, if so, what is the alternative.
“Does the USPS play the game that some organizations do?” said Maupin. “Will they send out these flyers to satisfy some legal stipulation regarding notification and then make whatever decision they want to make, regardless of the comments made by community members?”
A Gazette request for information from Postal Service officials in December received this response from Media Contact Philip Bogenberger: “The Free Union Post Office relocation process continues. There are no updates at this time.” This level of communication strikes Maupin and others as inadequate.
“Yes, we’re still dealing with Covid, but every other agency has been able to go to in-person meetings,” she said. “Why will the post office not have an in-person meeting with the Free Union residents and anyone else who uses this post office to discuss this matter? We’re worried that their tight stipulations—600 square feet, within a mile of the old facility—might be [intended] so that no one has a piece of property to relocate to, so we end up with no post office.”
The Postal Service’s July notification said only this about the process: “After the 30-day comment period, the Postal Service will consider the comments received that identify reasons why the Postal Services tentative decision and proposal is, or is not, the optimal solution for the identified need. Following that consideration, the Postal Service will make a final decision to proceed with, modify, or cancel the proposal.” Assuming most Free Union residents support relocating rather than closing the facility, what happens next remains unclear.