Thursday, March 27, 2008

Our Collective Thumb Needs to be on a Scale Favoring Parkland and Historic Preservation

I have been thinking about the presentation by the RK&K consultants to the Route 250 Bypass Interchange at McIntire Road steering committee on March 19, 2008 resulting in the steering committee voting to recommend alternative C1 as the their preferred alternative to Charlottesville City Council. The project will be constructed on both McIntire Park and Bailey Park and will clearly have significant impacts on nearby historic properties and public parkland - both of which are protected under Section 106 and/or Section 4(f) regulations. The purpose of these protections is to ensure that our cultural resources are not sacrificed by federally funded road projects when in fact the benefits of the road project are not great enough, or there are project alternatives that avoid or mitigate impacts on these sensitive and protected resources. I believe that RK&K consultants have misguided the steering committee into believing that these cultural and historic resources have been considered adequately, and that independent of the steering committee's recommendation these resources will be protected in future detailed interchange plan development. The consultants also stated that the decision on protections of historic resources is in the hands of the Federal Highway Administration only, but this overstates their role and ignores involvement by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and possibly involvement of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

I reviewed the draft Environmental Assessment (where information on the potential impacts of the project alternatives are to be described for public review) and noted that the RK&K engineering consultants continue to state that the McIntire Road Extended project and an interchange at the Route 250 Bypass were "jointly developed" with the McIntire Park master plan and that this eliminates the need to consider use of land in McIntire Park as an impact on protected parkland. Joint development of parkland and roadway projects would eliminate need to consider the interchange's impact on the park only if it was jointly planned when the park was created. The joint planning they refer to was decades after the park was created.
The draft Environmental Assessment prepared by RK&K states on page 43:

"Given the context whereby past, present and reasonably foreseeable future actions have cumulatively introduced development that is incompatible with the setting, location, and feeling of the historic resources located in the analysis area as well as directly impacted historic resources such as McIntire Park, the incremental, cumulative impact on historic resources from the proposed project is not considered significant."

I find it hard to agree with this assessment given that the effects of proposed alternatives on historic properties through the Section 106 consulting parties process began after the draft was prepared and submitted to FHWA for consideration. Perhap the city's consultants believe their role in this process is to promote the construction of one of the RK&K designed interchanges, but I believe it is important to ensure that a full statement of likely effects all alternative interchange alternatives will likely have on protected resources is provided for committee and public review prior to asking the steering committee for a recommendation. The list of historic properties eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places was expanded recently through the Section 106 consultation process and no final agreement on the level of effects proposed interchange alternatives will have on these historic properties. Determination of direct, indirect, and cumulative effects from alternative interchange designs through the Section 106 process is supposed to inform decision makers of the level of effects and possible ways to avoid and/or mitigate effects prior to their selecting one alternative for final design. The Section 106 process has never been adequately included in development of this project to date. This is clearly not in compliance with either the spirit or letter of the Federal-aid Highway program requirements.

Rather than reiterating old interpretation of now superseded requirements, or past insensitivity of prior transportation developments in and near McIntire Park, I urge the city and their consultants to review carefully the new federal rules that will go in effect on April 11, 2008 and require the consideration of preserving parkland and historic properties (where the eastern portion of McIntire Park falls into both categories) .

The preamble states that the new regulations "adopt the reasoning of several Circuit Courts of Appeal that safety concerns, adverse impacts to non-Section 4(f) resources such as communities and natural environmental resources, and the costs of constructing and operating an alternative must be compared to the harm that would result to the features, activities, and attributes that qualify the Section 4(f) property for protection."

The preamble goes on to state that "This balancing must be done with a 'thumb on the scale' in favor of the Section 4(f) property because of the paramount importance Section 4(f) places on those properties."

I am not sure where the thumbs of the project developers are, but certainly not on any scale balancing historic or parkland resources against interchange benefits. Now is the time that the city, its steering committee, and its consultants all focus on including consideration of these properties in considering among the build and no-build interchange alternatives. Not only is this a good idea, it is the law. If we don't protect our cultural resources now they will be lost forever.

Photo: from interchange project website at

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