The “other” Brandy Station preservation story: Stevensburg

With last week’s good news about Brandy Station’s Fleetwood Hill still making the rounds through the preservation community, let me mention another “front” at Brandy Station which deserves attention – Stevensburg and Hansborough Ridge. For some time I’ve been tracking proceedings regarding the widening of Virginia Highway 3, which passes on the south end of the ridge and through Stevensburg. Now’s a good time for an update.

The project dates back to the 1990s when the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) looked to widen the highway to four lanes through Culpeper County. The focus for this particular improvement is a five mile section between Stevensburg and Lignum. While multi-lane thoroughfares in rural areas are nice time-savers, they leave a wide footprint. This same highway cuts through the Chancellorsville battlefield and the northern edge of the Wilderness. In the past, VDOT prepared several options for the improvement. One option, designated Alternative A, would for the most part expand the existing right-of-way (in blue on the map below). Alternative B placed a by-pass north of Stevensburg (shown as a red line red).

stevensburgmap

Notice the red shaded sections on the map. The solid red shadings are portions of the Brandy Station battlefield. The hashed sections are part of the battlefield study area. In this case where Colonel Alfred Duffié’s division approached the 2nd South Carolina and 4th Virginia Cavalry on June 9, 1863. The forces clashed roughly where the two “alternatives” diverge. Also seen on the map is another Civil War site. A green outline designates one of the many Army of the Potomac campsites from the winter of 1863-4. And I would point out that remains of those encampments are up there today – in some places the very stones remain in the places the soldiers left them as they departed for the Overland Campaign.

That in mind, you can see where any widening of Highway 3 would impact heretofore undeveloped sites of significance. According to VDOT’s documentation, Alternative A would require purchase of 9.7 acres of battlefield while Alternative B would require 26.3 acres of the battlefield (and over fifty within the study area). When the project funding converted from state to federal, Alternative B came off the table due to that factor and environmental impacts.

Late last year, another option floated to place roundabouts in an effort to ease traffic through Stevensburg. But the Commonwealth Transportation Board turned that down. What is left is “Alternative A” with a loss of acres of the battlefield and encroachment on nearby Salubria (which a colonial era house). Now county officials are saying, “The design is basically done, and the right-of-way is done and we would hope that you take advantage of this and get some construction done.”

VDOT indicates about 8,000 vehicles a day pass through Stevensburg on average. That is expected to increase upwards of 14,000 by 2035. But compare that to another VDOT project also aimed to widen a state highway –  Virginia 7 at Reston. This plan would open a road from four to six lanes. Today that section carries a daily average of 60,000 vehicles, and will increase to 87,000 by 2034. Do the math, Virginia 7 will carry over four times the amount of traffic by 2035.

Furthermore, if we are discussing safety, the number of reported accidents on that section of Virginia 7 likewise is many times greater than that reported in Stevensburg. The main thing keeping the fatal accident count down is the slow speeds due to traffic congestion. If safety is the main objective for the Stevensburg widening, then would a wider highway achieve that? Or would a safer alternative be to slow traffic down – as has been successful through the US Highway 50 corridor from Aldie to Upperville?

Both projects – Virginia 3 and Virginia 7 widening – carry roughly the same price tag, which begs the next logical question: where would the tax dollars be better spent?

Now sharp readers will point out that both highway projects I mention pass through battlefields. Yes! Dranesville. But as I’ve blogged before, Dranesville is a lost battlefield with less than “take what you can get” preservation. Hansborough Ridge is a case where encroachment and development can be stopped before the resource is lost. Putting a half-dozen or more wayside markers along Virginia 3 to discuss Hansborough Ridge is hardly an “offset” and isn’t all that can be done.

So where are the preservationists on this issue at Hansborough Ridge? Sadly, the organization that should be stepping up to say something is instead sitting by quietly. This is, after all, part of the Brandy Station battlefield which the Brandy Station Foundation (BSF) was created to protect. Shortly after taking over as President, Joseph McKinney put a lid on any actions by BSF in regards to the Virginia 3 widening. Rather bluntly, he called for all members of BSF (not just board members) to “let the residents decide the matter” and to live with that outcome. Since then BSF has submitted nothing for review in the pubic hearings, said very little during the hearings, and completely avoided the subject on their web site (and newsletter). [UPDATE: And BSF failed to provide any input for the Section 106 process, which was required of VDOT by the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act.  That process was designed to allow preservation organizations to "get a word in" and champion for the historical resources.]  Sadly, BSF seems more concerned with preservation of one particular structure in Brandy Station (where I’m told ghost hunters frequently pursue otherworldly cats) than actually advocating for the preservation of the battlefield itself.

At least BSF should step forward to advocate an option that does not damage the integrity of the battlefield. In other localities, by simply raising the discussion (even if losing round) and highlighting the historical treasure, preservationists have scored long term wins. In 2035, we shouldn’t be looking back at Hansborough Ridge as a “take what you can get” slice of preserved battlefield.

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