Batesville residents have made significant progress toward their goal of restricting dangerous truck traffic that passes through their small rural village on Plank Road. Beginning in March at a packed community meeting with state and local officials to air their concerns, citizens have organized into groups and proceeded methodically, negotiating thickets of transportation policy and precedent in pursuit of a truck-limited Batesville.
In August, their efforts were rewarded with a first step—two new signs posted at the Rt. 29 and Rt. 250 intersections of Plank Road advising drivers that, contrary to their GPS instructions, Plank is not a good option for trucks. Long-time Batesville resident Alex Struminger, who has been active in keeping the various community groups connected and informed, said it’s a stop gap, but a good start. “I do feel lucky and appreciate what we’ve gotten accomplished,” he said. “Of course, you can imagine that from our point of view, we’re feeling like we’re only halfway there.”
For years, Batesville has endured the problem of large trucks speeding through the village—looking for a cut through between Rt. 29 and Rt. 250/I64—and often becoming stuck at the intersection with Miller School Road and other smaller roads, as well as posing a daily threat to public safety. When residents learned that a small bridge on Plank Road was to be upgraded, meaning that more and larger rigs would be encouraged to take the shortcut, the Batesville Community Club (Ruritans) and Batesville Historical Society quickly organized the March meeting and citizens launched a campaign to limit truck access.
“We have a longer, 20-year battle that’s been ongoing over the fact that Plank Road is classified as what’s called a ‘secondary collector road,’” said Struminger. “Because it’s classified that way, we can’t get the things that we’ve been requesting for years, such as a crosswalk in front of the store [connecting over to] where the kids are playing in the fields, and traffic calming like street pillows to slow people down.” The speed limit is 25 mph through the center of Batesville but 35 and then 45 further out, so motorists are often zooming as they hit the village’s main thoroughfare.
Beyond the signs suggesting that trucks avoid Plank Road, Batesville residents are requesting an official through-truck restriction for large vehicles on the stretch from Rt. 29 to Rt. 250. This kind of limitation requires a formal request by the county Board of Supervisors [BOS] to the Virginia Department of Transportation [VDOT], which has authority over any road restrictions and must consider the competing interests of access for trucking companies and local truck drivers. This process could take six months to a year, according to VDOT officials.
“The vote to actually put in a through-truck restriction is a very different animal,” said Struminger. “I’m sure the trucking lobby has a lot of influence, not just with our Supervisor, who is on our side, but with other Supervisors on the board, because it opens the door [to more restriction requests on other county roads]. Not that any trucker would ever want to be on Plank Road—it’s always an accident when they end up here, and it takes hours to get them out when they get stuck. So, it’s not like we’re actually doing anything that’s going to undermine anybody trying to get their job done.”
One of the insights Struminger has gained in this process, he says, is about VDOT itself. “It’s an organization that is not answerable directly to our elected officials,” said Struminger. “Creigh Deeds’ office could ask for them to postpone the bridge project all day long and they would not get a response. VDOT is a part of the executive branch and unless the governor asked for it, they would continue with their mission, which is to keep the traffic moving. So, while we were fighting the lifting of a 17-ton weight limit [on the bridge] because that would invite more truck traffic, really VDOT’s mission is to make sure there are no weight limits anywhere in the state of Virginia. That is their mission.”
How has Batesville made such progress? For starters, the village pulled together a critical mass of dedicated, informed residents who were willing to take time to pursue intricate, sometimes maddeningly slow solutions on multiple fronts. The community immediately contacted its BOS representative Jim Andrews and state representative Creigh Deeds as well as county transportation staff and regional VDOT representatives to tackle the problem. The Batesville Community Club, of which the Ruritans are a part, organized a working group with county and VDOT staff to meet and negotiate on behalf of the restriction request. The community “passed the hat” up and down Plank Road to hire a lawyer to help with Freedom of Information requests from VDOT and to look for precedents in other areas of the state.
Whether due to its size, geography, demography, or history, Batesville is remarkably engaged. “I think that we have an incredibly well-connected, tight community, a model community in some ways,” said Struminger. “I do think it helps to have a country store. You need a place for people to congregate and get to know each other, so that you’re friends with them and have an informal way of reaching out to them, seeing each other in person often.” Struminger is the former owner of the Batesville Market, the only business of its kind in the village and a popular spot even for those who don’t live in Batesville.
The market’s current owner, Kristen Rabourdin, agrees. “The county right now is working on its Comprehensive Plan and one of the parts is a focus on Crossroads Communities, like Batesville, and how to provide services to these outlying areas,” she said. “In this kind of community there’s always a hub—whether it be a store or a post office or a library—there’s always an anchor, someplace that people can identify with. In our case, it’s a country store.”
Rabourdin said the community began with the assumption that everyone in the various governmental organizations has good intentions, but they may not understand the contours of the problem. “[Batesville is] a little bit of an outlier from our larger county, and from a Commonwealth perspective we’re just a blip,” she said. “We understand that people aren’t here every day, and they don’t see what we see. So, helping people to see [using data, photos, and other evidence] can really bring the issues to the forefront, and I think that’s critical.”
Another key strength of Batesville’s approach has been the “people power” they’ve aggregated throughout the region by linking with other groups who have been waging similar battles. To the east toward North Garden, Bundoran resident Jon Scheumann organized a group last year called Protect Rural Albemarle in response to plans by Pippin Hill Farm’s owners to expand the Crossroads Inn. To the west, Afton resident Leah Stearns was pivotal in connecting citizens who opposed the Hazy Mountain Winery and Wavertree event space plans, sparking the Keep Afton Rural movement.
“Even though Batesville itself really only accounts for a few hundred people in the village, we have this coalition that kind of sprang out of the bridge fight that we’re now calling the Plank Road coalition, and the combined mailing lists are probably over 1,000 people,” said Struminger. “This is a place where we have a lot of common ground, and I hope that this might be a way that we can also leverage the coalition to do other good things for these communities along here.”
A Calming Influence
Batesville’s full truck restriction request has seen glimmers of hope already. Even though the formal study is not yet complete, county staff reported to the BOS in August that “VDOT has completed an initial review of the roadway and determined that the roadway ‘appears to meet the objective criteria established by the CTB [Commonwealth Transportation Board] required to be considered for a Through Truck Restriction.’” This is a tremendous step forward for the cause, though it still must weather the agency’s review and potential objections from the trucking lobby.
While waiting to hear the fate of the truck restriction, Batesville residents are coming up with other ideas for traffic calming. “We could put up plantings near the road and big white gates that are open on either side of the village, as a visual reminder that people are driving into a slower area,” said Struminger. “We’re thinking of rows of Virginia native trees like red buds and dogwoods. Things like that will all come out of the hard work and pockets of the people who live here, but they’re all willing to do it.”
Rabourdin noted that population growth in the area undoubtedly puts increased pressure on VDOT, which means that the community must stay resolved. “VDOT has to make sure all of these intersections that used to be safe are still safe with more people here, so there’s a lot on their plate to manage,” she said. “But I think the fact that we are steadfast and patient and we’ve kind of dug in our heels on this works to our advantage. The store has been here since 1880—we’ve got time, we’re not going anywhere.”