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Transit-Oriented Community Along I-66 Is Struck With Highway Realities

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A stretch of I-66 in Dunn Loring that would be affected by the new right-of-way proposals by VDOT.
WAMU/Martin Di Caro
A stretch of I-66 in Dunn Loring that would be affected by the new right-of-way proposals by VDOT.

Residents along Stenhouse Place in Dunn Loring, Virginia, did not buy their modest homes in a pretty cul-de-sac so they could be close to Interstate 66, its sound wall visible through the trees that line their street. They wanted to be close to the Dunn Loring Metro Station so they could commute on the Orange Line and their kids could walk to a nearby elementary school, all to avoid driving one of the worst congested highways in the region.

But residents say their houses will be the first to go when the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) begins construction in 2017 to widen the I-66 right-of-way, essentially paving over their transit-oriented lives to make way for more cars.

“We decided to have a smaller house, pay more for that small house, and then be able to take the Metro every day, so we wouldn’t contribute to traffic and pollution, and everything that goes along with commuting every day,” said Marcia Hook, an attorney who has lived with her husband in their Stenhouse Place home for three years.

Siew Lee outside her family's home on Stenhouse Place. (WAMU/Martin Di Caro)

“My husband and I and our neighbors are being punished for doing exactly what we have been told to do all along, which is live close to where you work and use public transit,” she added.

VDOT: no final decisions yet

The Virginia Department of Transportation will begin holding public meetings next week on the environmental and neighborhood impacts of its plan to build 25 miles of high-speed toll and HOV-3 carpool lanes on I-66 from the Beltway to Haymarket.

While officials stress a final “preferred” design will not be presented until next year, current design plans show 11 to 18 homes in the expanded right-of-way would be taken through eminent domain, with close to 200 additional properties directly impacted in the project’s three segments: U.S. 15 to Route 28, Route 28 to U.S. 50, and U.S. 50 to I-495.

Even if their homes are saved, their neighborhoods will not be the same, some residents said.

“I would not lose my house under this plan but I will be living in a community that will be heavily impacted due to the fly-over ramps, expanded roadway footprint, and the loss of the very modest green space we have,” said Bryan Zelley, another resident in the small but growing Dunn Loring community.

“I moved here because the Dunn Loring Metro station is here. I can walk to the station in about ten minutes. A project to improve transportation could be a good thing, but what we are seeing here is a very cars-first approach,” Zelley said.

Next up, public meetings

Public meetings or hearings seem pointless to the homeowners interviewed by WAMU 88.5 on Wednesday. If VDOT truly were interested in their position, the agency would have properly notified them about their homes, they said.

“One day I got a call from my mom saying our neighbor had said maybe someone is coming to take our house, which to me sounded like craziness,” recalled Hook.

“It turned out our neighbor had been told by someone in another community who attended a public information session in January that she saw our name and our house circled on a map. Sure enough that meant [VDOT] was planning to take our house.”

Hook said she got that call at the right time, however. She was about to sign a contract to have her current house knocked down and a custom home rebuilt on the same lot.

Her neighbor, Siew Lee, also said she heard about the potential displacement of her home through word of mouth, not an official notification from VDOT.

“I think it is unreasonable to use eminent domain against people who are supporting public transportation,” said Lee, who said her children’s ball field may lose about a third of its land, too.

In remarks to reporters on Tuesday, after unveiling plans to possible keep future I-66 tolls under state control, Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne said he has asked VDOT engineers to reduce the project’s impacts on neighborhoods.

“We would hope to engineer down to zero. I can’t say if we’ll get there,” said Layne. “We don’t want to displace anybody and we will try to mitigate as much as we can. They should be compensated justly and appropriately if that happens to them.”

Eminent domain on the horizon

The Dunn Loring community is not looking forward to VDOT’s assessment of their property values. Hook pointed to a case that took years to litigate involving a Virginia Beach family.

James and Janet Ramsey’s property had been assessed at $248,000 after VDOT sued them to force the sale of their land in 2009. Three years later, when preparing for a trial to determine the property’s value, a different VDOT assessor determined the family should receive only $90,000 in compensation.

“VDOT actually hid the first assessment and wouldn’t present it in court. They litigated it all the way up to the Virginia Supreme Court,” Hook said. The litigation continues, but the high court ruled that both VDOT appraisals must be entered into evidence.

“Other people in our community have dealt with VDOT and eminent domain before. They are extremely aggressive in litigation. While their media spokespeople may be saying nice things, just look at their litigation history.”

Hook, who is one of several homeowners behind the Twitter account @66Wisely, said the state’s plans are anything but wise.

“As someone who grew up in Southern California, I can tell you that you can’t outbuild traffic. If you build more roads, people just move further out to commute in.”

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