County wants less salt

Residents want more Turkey Ridge; VDOT makes no promises

County roads took center stage at the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors Monday meeting (April 7), as the board amended its six-year road plan and considered the impact of road salt on the local watershed.

The board began with a discussion of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s (VDOT) $1.3 million six-year secondary road plan for the county — a plan that gave highest priority to paving the half-mile gravel portion on otherwise paved Battle Mountain Road, and to fixes to Rolling, North Poes and Jericho roads.

It was there that the objections started, as several citizens present wondered why Turkey Ridge Road, which they said has long been in need of repaving and repairs, wasn’t on the plan. Stonewall-Hawthorne resident Paul Komar was the first to voice this concern, as did Piedmont district supervisor Mike Biniek.

Komar said the residents of Turkey Ridge had started a petition last year to draw VDOT’s attention to the road, and would have again if they had known it would be again neglected in VDOT’s rolling six-year plan. County Administrator John McCarthy explained the road had never made the plan, as the long and twisting road had right-of-way problems and repairs would carry a high price tag.

VDOT representative Greg Banks agreed with McCarthy, adding that though VDOT was aware of the road’s deteriorating condition, its layout made repairing smaller sections impossible. The whole road would need to be fixed at once, Banks explained, which would be very costly.

Stonewall-Hawthorne supervisor Chris Parrish said he “didn’t see the necessity of connecting the paved portions of Battle Mountain Road,” adding that he and several road residents were concerned about it becoming a shortcut to U.S. 211.

“I think sections of Turkey Ridge need it more,” Parrish said. “It does wash out quite a bit up there.” Parrish cautioned the public, however, that the board had little direct control over VDOT’s actions, and could only bring issues to their attention.

The road plan was eventually unanimously passed, 5-0, though the board asked that both Turkey Ridge and Old Hollow roads be added to next year’s version of the plan. McCarthy pointed out that they would both be at the bottom of the priority list, however, and construction likely wouldn’t begin on either one next year.

At the evening meeting, road talk continued with a presentation from local attorney David Konick, who brought up VDOT’s use of road salt at last month’s meeting and had asked for time to expand on his findings.

According to various news stories and several transportation representatives he spoke with, Konick reported that 3,089 tons of salt — the weight of 412 African elephants, as he put it — were dumped on Rappahannock County roads this winter.

This salt, combined with other chemicals meant to de-ice roads during this long, icy and snowy winter, was poisoning county rivers, Konick said, and having effects on the watershed downstream, which eventually empties into Chesapeake Bay.

“The bottom line is it’s bad for animals and aquatic life,” Konick said.

Konick added that several states — such as Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, New York and more — are trying to combat icy roads by spreading beet juice or other alternatives. The juice, Konick noted, does need to be combined with a salty brine mixture, but even that would be a help.

“Sugar does also affect the environment,” Konick conceded, “but it’s still better than salt. Fish don’t die from diabetes.”

While down at the Rush River recently, Konick said he saw what he thought was “four to six inches of snow” along the bridge, but soon discovered it was actually leftover salt. “The snow had melted weeks ago!” Konick said.

Ultimately, Konick proposed several adjustments to VDOT’s policies that could help curb excessive salt usage, including tighter “Best Practices” standards and closer monitoring of various VDOT contractors. Despite orders not to salt unpaved roads — salt mixed with dirt attracts moisture and turns the road to mud, Banks explained — Konick said he’d driven behind at least one truck doing exactly that.

Konick also urged Rappahannock citizens to take a more proactive approach to winter weather. “I would say go get chains or a four-wheel drive vehicle,” Konick said. “If you can’t drive on snow, don’t go out in it.”

Konick suggested that Rappahannock could be “the perfect place for a pilot program” exploring road salt alternatives — a suggestion backed up by, among others present, RappFLOW president Bev Hunter, Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP) president Rick Kohler and Monira Rifaat, a longtime Sperryville farmer who is also a Soil and Water Conservation District director. Rifaat went even further than Konick, and suggested Rappahannock simply plow the roads and spread no salt, placing signs throughout the county to warn visiting drivers.

That suggestion was quickly shot down by Banks — who called it “a huge liability . . . I don’t see that going anywhere.” — and county attorney Peter Luke, who pointed out that because of the Byrd Road Act, which has given VDOT control over state roads for the last 80-plus years, the road treatment process must be uniform throughout the state and can’t vary from county to county.

“We welcome any critique of what we do,” Banks said. “Our policy evolved over time . . . [to help cover] such a large highway system. There are drawbacks to everything, and too much road salt is a problem . . . If there were materials to cover both public safety and environmental standards, we’d use them.

“We do our best.”

Eventually, as Konick and several other citizens urged them to, the supervisors passed a resolution asking VDOT to reexamine its use of road salt in Rappahannock County, “to make sure that both the volumes applied, the frequency of application and the mix of agents involved are calculated to protect the environment.”

Resolved: Volunteering, giving and gridlock

At its afternoon meeting, the board unanimously passed a series of resolutions, none of which, McCarthy pointed out, involved the board pledging money. “Which does make them a little more practical,” McCarthy smiled.

The first declared April 6-12 Volunteer Week in Rappahannock County, which will spotlight the many volunteer organizations who serve the county. Similarly, the board passed a second resolution congratulating non-profit organization People Inc. on its 50-year anniversary.

People Inc. president Robert Goldsmith thanked the board for acknowledging the organization’s past work — which was perhaps most notably seen in Rappahannock County in 2012 offering to turn the Old Washington School into low-income affordable housing. Goldsmith also mentioned that People Inc. is considering a new project in Fauquier which would offer loans to people who couldn’t make it to the bank.

A third resolution appointed May 6 as “Give Local Piedmont Day,” which is a local effort as part of a national day of giving. The day encourages county residents to make donations to any of their favorite local non-profit organizations — of which there are now 22, said Cole Johnson.

The final resolution concerned the gridlock in Richmond, where partisan fighting over the role of Medicaid in Virginia is holding up a final budget and preventing the supervisors — and other jurisdictions around the state — from moving forward with their local budget. “This is calling for an agreed-upon budget [in Richmond] so that we can do our jobs,” McCarthy explained.

Jackson district supervisor Ron Frazier lobbied that the resolution include a suggestion that the Senate “uncouple Medicaid from the budget” and make it a separate issue. The rest of the supervisors agreed and passed the amended resolution.

The board also unanimously approved a request from Sperryville resident Margaret Price, who requested permission to build a second dwelling on her 84-acre property. At the planning commission’s March meeting, Price said the house was built in the 1970s, and her “whole family — several generations — gathers there. I’d like to have some more space.”

A second dwelling is allowed by right, McCarthy explained, on properties that meet a certain density requirement. One dwelling per 50 acres is allowed as tenant housing; since Price’s application fell short of that, McCarthy said, a special exception was required, but it still exceeded the minimum set forth in the county’s ordinance (one per 25 acres).

“I don’t see any problem with it,” said Biniek. “I think it’s probably a good addition.” The board approved Price’s request 5-0.