Help! The Highway Is Coming! Highway Expansion and Historic Sites

By Ross Bradford posted 05-24-2013 11:07


A century ago, the Virginia section of Route 1 was a dusty two-lane auto trail, winding its way along the state’s coastline. Today, however, in northern Virginia, it is a fearsome beast of four, heavily travelled lanes of traffic, lined by gas stations, strip shopping plazas, and apartment complexes. Traffic congestion along this stretch of road is the stuff of legends.

Near Mount Vernon, Route 1 slices right through Woodlawn, a National Trust Historic Site. Over the past five years, the National Trust has experienced two road-widening projects affecting Woodlawn—one is well underway, and the other is just about to begin. As a preservation advocate with decades of experience working on transportation projects, and as the owner of numerous historic sites across the country, we would like to share a few points to consider in the event that you or your organization face similar situations.

woodlawn map

Be engaged from the beginning.

Fortunately, several federal laws are designed to protect historic resources, especially Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act. Often the Section 106 process and Section 4(f) evaluation are combined with a review of the project under the National Environmental Policy Act; this is commonly referred to as the NEPA process. Understanding how these laws work is instrumental to ensuring that your organization can maximize its advocacy efforts.

At their core, these laws require federal projects to go through a series of steps to ensure that historic resources are identified and considered before final decisions are made regarding a project. Federal agencies will begin with the “scoping” process, during which the public has the opportunity to give the federal agency insight into a particular area’s historic resources and help the agency establish the area around the project that might be affected. This is more commonly referred to as the “area of potential effects” or APE. Establishing the APE accurately from the beginning is critical. If the APE is too narrowly defined in the early stages of a project, then historic resources might be overlooked and not considered.

Another factor to take into account is whether the road project is being fast tracked. In the case of Route 1, the National Trust had to quickly mobilize and participate in an expedited Section 106 process. The highway’s general alignment and size was determined relatively quickly, and, as a design-build project, within a matter of months a contractor will begin designing and constructing the road.

The takeaway here is that the earlier your organization engages in the advocacy process the better. Many critical decisions, such as road alignment and size, are made early in the environmental review process. If your organization waits until the design phase of a project, then you will have missed several opportunities to ensure that historic resources are avoided or harm to them is minimized. Furthermore, it is important to contribute early in the process so that you can build the legal record in the event that the federal agency fails to follow applicable laws designed to protect historic resources.

What do we mean by early involvement? As a first step you should request that the federal agency grant your organization “consulting party” status under Section 106. A sample form letter is available here. This will ensure that your organization is notified directly about meetings related to the project. The NEPA process typically generates a document called an Environmental Assessment (EA) or a larger document called an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Both documents discuss the wide range of impacts that a project may have on historic resources, as well as impacts on wildlife and natural resources.

As a member of the public you will have an opportunity to comment on the agency’s proposed justification for the project, which is contained in the EIS or EA’s Purpose and Need statement. Be sure to look closely at data that is used and ask for clarifications or explanations for how data was gathered and the methodology used to interpret it.

Be a partner not an adversary.

Woodlawn Plantation, Alexandria, Va.

You are not the biggest toad in the puddle. Road-widening projects are extremely complex and affect not only historic resources but natural resources and the broader community. In addition to bringing preservationists into the decision-making process, a road-widening project will also engage conservationists, bicyclists, planners, road safety experts, property owners, and many others. It is important to be realistic about your agenda as a preservationist and work together to strike a balance with others around the table. Obviously, if there is no transportation need for the road expansion, your organization is justified in pursuing advocacy efforts to stop it. If, on the other hand, the expansion is truly needed, it will be more helpful for your organization to be a partner in the project’s planning so that your voice is heard and taken seriously during the decision-making process.

In the case of Route 1, while the new footprint of the road will be much larger, this project creates an opportunity to transform the existing roadway, which has no infrastructure for bicycles or pedestrian safety, into a road that will accommodate a variety of forms of transportation through the use of bike lanes, trails, sidewalks, and corridors for future light rail or bus rapid transit lanes. These added features will provide greater opportunities for the public to access Woodlawn, whether on foot, by bike, or on mass transit.

Details are important.

Road development projects involve more than simply bulldozing, grading, and slapping asphalt on the ground. As your organization gets involved in a project, you should ask the following questions:

  • What types of storm water management facilities might be installed with the road project?
  • How large will these facilities be and what design techniques are being used to minimize their impact on historic resources?
  • How do the limits of construction differ from the actual footprint of the road?
  • Will retaining walls be installed if the road is expanded along a hillside?
  • Will trees need to be cut down and large amounts of soil be disturbed in order to install the retaining wall?
  • How will the road project impact the existing and future use of the property?

By asking the right questions, your organization will help the federal agency better understand how the proposed project might affect historic sites and will encourage the agency to look more closely at alternative alignment options or designs that avoid or minimize impacts on historic resources. It may be helpful for your organization to consult with a civil engineering firm to determine whether there are engineering alternatives to the ones being proposed.

Use creative ways to minimize and mitigate impacts.

If historic resources cannot be avoided, your organization should be prepared to suggest measures that minimize and mitigate impacts on these resources. Common measures to minimize harm include the use of noise walls and berms to lessen sound impacts and the use of landscaping to reduce visual impacts.

We considered both measures at Woodlawn and noted certain drawbacks: landscaping can only be installed at certain times of year; planting large mature trees and plants is typically discouraged because younger and smaller specimens have a greater chance of survival; and, most importantly, landscaping can take years to mature to provide the desired visual buffer. Your organization should be cautious when reviewing landscape renderings, which often depict mature trees and plants and do not accurately show the immediate and short-term visual impacts of a project.

Some measures, like noise walls, can also exacerbate the project’s adverse visual impact on historic resources. In the case of Woodlawn, installing noise walls along the highway would alleviate some of the noise impacts, but it would transform the open and bucolic character of the historic district, making the property less accessible to the public both physically and visually.

Using landscaping to screen road projects may also negatively affect a site. Several decades ago, the National Trust planted its own landscaping to reduce visual impacts from Route 1 and other encroaching sprawl. Unfortunately, this resulted in unintended consequences years later. What was once a highly visible historic site from Route 1 became hidden and somewhat forgotten by casual travelers through the historic district. Furthermore, views from the hill where the mansion is located became obscured and detracted from the site’s overall setting.

You should also explore newer measures to minimize harm, such as quiet pavement technologies. These materials are very new, and it’s unclear how durable they are compared to traditional asphalt. Because some of these technologies are still experimental, your state department of transportation may, or may not, be open to trying them.

The speed of the road is also a critical factor to determining the size of its footprint. Typically, the faster the road, the wider it must be to meet certain safety standards. If possible, seeking lower speed limits may enable your organization to achieve reductions in the footprint and noise levels of the road.

Finally, if more traditional techniques fail to alleviate the impacts of a road project, or the impacts are difficult or impossible to minimize, your organization might be able to negotiate mitigation funding for bricks-and-mortar improvements or similar enhancements to the site. At Woodlawn we were able to negotiate substantial infrastructure improvements, which included access to public water, sewer, and gas service. These improvements helped address the adverse effects of the project on our ability to manage and maintain Woodlawn and the adverse effects of the project on the experience of visitors to the site.

As the owner of a historic site located in a fast-developing part of the country and one that is affected by several transportation projects, the National Trust embraced a variety of roles: property owner, historic preservation advocate, and neighbor to the surrounding community. Balancing these roles continues to be challenging at times; however, developing good relationships with federal, state, and local government agencies and other consulting parties has allowed for a more direct and robust decision-making process, where compromises mean protecting historic resources while also allowing for much-needed infrastructure enhancements to Route 1.

If you are interested in reading more details about this project, you can visit the Federal Highway Administration’s project page. Here you will find copies of the environmental assessment, the programmatic agreement that outlines the mitigation measures used at Woodlawn, and a variety of interesting maps and diagrams depicting the road expansion.

For more on Section 106 check out the Winter 2012 issue of Forum Journal: Section 106 Uncensored: The Insider's Perspective is available here.

Ross M. Bradford is Senior Associate General Counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

#Woodlawn #Section106 #HistoricSites #Planning

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