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Wrong Turn

Bowing to developers, for years Chesterfield County has been beset by too many roads placed in bad positions.



Few knew about a bureaucratic time bomb next to a Chesterfield County strip mall.

When the cars started backing up, it showed, once again, just how mindless planning in the fast-growing suburban county can be. After operating peacefully for years, shop owners at Deer Run Village were startled June 13 to see construction workers pouring concrete for a new median strip on Spring Run Road as part of construction of a new Pearson Honda car dealership.

The new median strip, only a few hundred feet long, makes it impossible for thousands of potential customers shopping at the stores (including a Food Lion and a Jiffy Lube) to make left hand turns and get back easily to their homes south of congested Hull Street Road. Now, they will have to drive several miles out of their way or end up waiting for notoriously-long Hull Street stoplights.

The result? More drivers are going to have to spend more time in their cars, burning increasingly expensive gasoline and emitting more pollution — all because of a new median strip that seems to serve no actual purpose.

The median strip case dates back to 1999 when the owners of the property now held by Pearson Honda applied for rezoning. As part of its approval in 2000, the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors decreed that the median strip would be built preventing left-hand turns from Deer Run Village. Two right-hand turns at the site now developed by Pearson would be added. The zoning change lay dormant and unnoticed for nearly a decade before the land was developed.

The change was typical of how Chesterfield’s supervisors put little thought into the real-world impact of their rabidly pro-development aesthetic. Bowing to developers, for years the county has been beset by too many roads placed in bad positions. Too many subdivisions have been allowed in areas that hopscotch green areas to spots suiting the interests of the real estate industry — and not county residents.

The results are clogged major arterial roads such Hull Street, stressed out police and fire services and schools crammed with too many students. Cosby High School near Woodlake, only five years old, already has 500 more students than the building can handle. County bureaucrats are back in emergency triage, shifting more students to other schools farther away from home. In my subdivision east of Winterpock, high school students that would have gone to Cosby will be shifted to another school for the third time in 10 years because of the county’s lousy planning.

The dilemma has a bigger scope as well. “It shows the ultimate collapse of Hull Street,” says Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which is based in Washington and tracks transportation and development issues in Virginia.

Schwartz says that the median strip case shows “the inherent flaws of post-World War II planning.” Large highways such as Hull Street had been originally seen as “true” corridors to move people to and from Richmond, he says. But over time, the development crowd took over. Roads instead became the focus of commercial shopping that actually restricts travel and negates the true purpose of the highways.

Similar restrictions eventually extended to secondary feeder roads such as Spring Run Road. Instead of being used to get people to and from the major highways, they, too, were bastardized into conduits for shopping.

What’s especially strange about the median strip is that it promotes one business, the car dealership, over other businesses — the strip mall stores — while negatively impacting county residents.

Pearson Honda officials say they don’t like the median strip, either. It “messes up our customers” and “doesn’t serve anybody’s good purpose,” says Virginia Wooten, corporate secretary of Pearson’s parent company. However, Steve Adams, senior traffic engineer for Chesterfield County, says that Pearson officials did not object when they saw the site plans for the median strip, which they paid for.

The Spring Run case also raises the specter of other bad decisions made by past boards of supervisors that may lie lurking in Chesterfield and similar suburban counties. In 2007, the Virginia Department of Transportation tried to raise standards by considering better traffic flows before allowing access roads. But those standards cannot overcome previous zoning decisions as is the case with Spring Run Road.

At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be much the store owners can do. “It’s really hurting business,” says James Walker, manager of the Food Lion whose corporate headquarters in Salisbury, N.C., is looking into the dilemma. Wendy, a cashier at the New Yorker deli, says they will start a petition drive. “We’re really freaking out,” she says.

Ultimately, says Schwartz, the best solution is one of the oldest — building roads in a 19th century grid system that shortens travel time, a practice that was common in small towns. It might sound like “Leave It to Beaver” but it certainly would be an improvement over the mess that is today’s Chesterfield County.

Peter Galuszka is a contributing editor for Style Weekly.

Opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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