Lancaster County hopes to add muscle in its fight against the United States Postal Service by drawing Virginia Department of Transportation into the battle.
The USPS plans to open a post office in the Village of Weems, and although the board of supervisors is “vehemently and unanimously” opposed, the USPS claims it isn’t subject to local zoning regulations and doesn’t need the county’s permission.
Hoping for help from the state, Lancaster’s board of supervisors called VDOT’s attention to the size of James Lane, the project’s proposed location, claiming the road is too narrow to support the traffic a post office will draw. Lancaster also pointed out that the USPS plans to install a commercial entryway in a residential neighborhood. The board hoped, those two factors, if nothing else, would give VDOT impetus to get involved.
Lancaster presses VDOT
At the board of supervisors’ meeting in January, Lancaster asked VDOT to look into the USPS project and see what the department could do to help. When the issue was revisited at the end of February, the lack of results sparked a fiery exchange.
“We don’t have a lot to say about it, yet…” Alvin Balderson, the acting Northern Neck residency administrator for VDOT told the board.
He explained that the USPS had not approached VDOT, and as a federal entity, the USPS is not required to. “But most of the time they do out of courtesy.”
Balderson also assured the board that, if and when, VDOT received permits or site plans from USPS, the department would carefully review the matter.
District 5 supervisor, Robert Westbrook found the lack of information from VDOT unsatisfactory and questioned whether or not VDOT has the option to say no to this type of project.
Balderson said VDOT does not have that authority. At best, the department could conduct a traffic study and make recommendations on what should be done.
When asked if the normal requirements for entrance ways and driveways are applicable to the USPS, Balderson explained that “they would apply but they don’t necessarily have to be permitted through the Commonwealth of Virginia because [this project] is federal property.”
It’s private property, Westbrook clarified. He explained that the USPS wants to rent the property from a private landowner.
Balderson said that detail is something VDOT could look into.
“We asked this question a month ago. And now you’re saying you are going to look into it.” Time may be running out, Westbrook warned.
Balderson again tried to explain that since the USPS is a federal entity and VDOT didn’t have anything on file from them, there wasn’t much the VDOT could look into.
And you don’t have the ability, power, or the authority to say no [to this project], Westbrook prodded further.
“No sir, we don’t. Unless there’s something in violation of the Commonwealth’s code for the roadway or the entrance of the building.” But still it would end with recommendations, not stopping the project, Balderson said.
Balderson suggested that if the USPS pursues the project, during negotiations, Lancaster may want to ask the USPS to fork up money to pay for pavement.
“It’s not about the money,” Westbrook shot back. “It’s about violating the neighborhood. It’s about having a post office with increased traffic where kids go to school, ride bikes, walk, do all that. It’s going to completely disrupt that. And if you’re going to widen the road, you’re going to widen it onto people’s property.”
Balderson tried further to explain that he completely understands the county’s concerns, but VDOT isn’t involved in the federal government or the post office.
“I get it. It’s CYA,” said Westbrook. “But you’re in a tough spot,” he conceded.
Not ready to relinquish hope that VDOT may be able to assist, Lancaster gave Balderson a copy of the USPS’ plans, and Balderson told the board VDOT would have its folks take a look.
Will VDOT actually help?
As requested, VDOT will “perform a review of the submitted development plan and provide advisory comments” confirmed Kelly Hannon VDOT communications manager for the Fredericksburg district. And if a traffic study is submitted, “VDOT will review that plan and provide advisory comments,” she added.
In cases like this, VDOT will comment on how the plans may affect traffic demand and offer suggestions on how that demand may be addressed by the land development applicant or the locality. But these comments are advisory only, and ultimately, the land use decision is made by the locality, Hannon stressed.
Once the county made its decision, VDOT would require a permit for any work occurring within the right-of-way or ask for documentation that the project does not require a permit. VDOT will also provide comments on work that would occur in the right-of-way, and the permit applicant would be required to address these comments.
“James Lane is a state-maintained road, and VDOT will continue to maintain the road as part of our normal maintenance program,” said Hannon. But any widening of a state-maintained secondary road requires an identified funding source.
For the state to cover the costs, “the project would need to be prioritized by the board of supervisors in the county’s Secondary Six Year Plan, a budget for spending the county’s share of state transportation funds dedicated to secondary roads. And that plan is subject to a public hearing and voted on annually, she explained.
Alternatively, the locality could also submit a SMART SCALE application for a road widening project. That process includes submitting the request during an open application period, having scored on attributes, which in some areas includes land use, and getting approval from the Commonwealth Transportation Board to have the project included in the statewide Six-Year Improvement Program.
If approved, VDOT would compensate private property owners for any right-of-way needed as part of a project. “However, we want to emphasize that there is no widening project funded or planned at this time,” said Hannon.
But what, if anything, will VDOT do if the USPS proceeds with seeking a green light from the county or state?
“If the project affects the state-maintained road or right-of-way, and VDOT staff observe construction has begun, the private property owner would be asked to obtain a permit or asked to provide documentation that the project does not require a permit,” Hannon added.