The power struggle between city and suburban interests over the proposed Richmond beltway has been fueled by secret allegations from city officials that some of the area's most prominent political figures have a financial stake in the road's completion.
Richmond Mayor Henry L. Marsh made those accusations in a confidential letter last summer to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Neil Goldschmidt, alleging that the road's route will only benefit several state and suburban politicians who hold undeveloped land near the planned interstate.
The highway, said Marsh, "appears to have been carefully planned so that parcels of land owned or optioned by at least three important state and county politicians should become prime candidates for major development, since the land is prominently and conveniently near interchanges of the new highway."
An examination of local land records indicates that at least three area politicians -- virginia Dels. C. Hardaway Marks (D Hopewell) and Robert B. Ball (D-Henrico) and former Henrico County Board of Supervisors chairman George W. Jinkins Jr. -- as well as former Henrico County engineer Allan T. Dotson Jr., stand to benefit from construction of all or part of the roadway. Each has taken a public position favoring building at least a portion of the beltway.
While Marsh's allegation has triggered an inquiry by the Department of Transportation's inspector general's office, Virginia Highway Commissioner Harold King calls it "hogwash." Both he and the politician landowners Marsh alluded to deny they received special favors or inside knowledge from road's planners.
But as Marsh's letter points out, there is no denying the Richmond beltway could have an enormous impact on suburban land values. In cities such as Washington and Baltimore, interstate beltways triggered land booms that drew millions of dollars worth of housing, industry, offices and stores to the suburbs in unprecedented numbers, forever altering these areas. In Fairfax County, for instance, a 2.5-acre site near Tyson Corner and the Capital Beltway is now said to be worth at least $1.2 million, compared with the $14,000 a small Baptist church paid for it in 1952.
Many Richmond real-estate experts any they expect their community's transformation to be less dramatic, but just as profound. "We're talking about a new frontier," says Ralph Spencer of Harrison & Bates, one of Richmond's top industrial real estate brokers. "There's a lot of open land near the road, and in my opinion, you'll see a corridor of development and substantial long-run enchancement of property values."
As for the size of that "enhancement," the experts say much of the land near the proposed beltway's interchanges is already worth at least double its assessed value and could increase 5 to 10 times once the road is built. If so, the beneficiaries will include:
Marks, a senior legislator who chairs the House Corporations, Insurance and Banking Committee. A lawyer, he owns about nine acres near a proposed i-95 interchange in Prince George's County and has been one the road's most ardent backers.
Marks says he has no conflict of interest because "the land I've got is valuable whether they build [the road] or not." Marks says he bought the property, now assessed at about $71,000, in 1958.
Former Henrico board chairman Jinkins, an insurance broker who owns a 12-acre parcel near a planned interchange in Chesterfield County. Jinkins, who left the baord in 1979 after eight years in office, chaired a citizens committee that advised the highway commission during its search for a suitable route for the road. He also sponsored a resolution before the area's regional planning commission three years ago urging the project's expeditious completion."
Jinkins says the property, which land records indicate was purchased by his father in 1941 and is assessed at $12,000, is too small and too far from the proposed interchange to benefit him, although he concedes "it might be enhanced comewhat" by the beltway. Since the parcel was owned by his family long before the roadway was planned, he says he sees no conflict of interest.
Former Henrico engineer Dotson, a beltway advocate who has vigorously supported construction of an interchange with State Rte. 5 in southeastern Henrico.
Dotson, who retired in 1976 after 29 years with the county, owns three parcels totaling 297 acres, most of which is near the interchange site. According to county records, he bought the acreage in the 1950s with family members, and it is now assessed at about $250,000. The interchange is opposed by some area residents who contend it would damage the scenic and historic quality of Rte. 5, which leads from Jamestown to Richmond and dates back to the 1600s.
Dotson says he filed a disclosure statement with the county listing his holdings in order to avoid accusations of conflict. He says he does not believe the road will affect his property values for 10 to 20 years because of lack of water and sewer lines in the area. v
Henrico Del. Ball, hotel owner, real estate broker and one of the county's major land traders, who owns a 60-acre site less than two miles south of two major i-295 interchanges near the site that a North Carolina firm plans the develop into a 920,000 square-foot regional shopping mall.
Ball publicly supported construction of the i-295 segment of the beltway, but says he has no conflict because the mall would have been built with or without the new highway. Henrico land records also show the highway department paid Ball $155,000 for two acres, including a service station site acquired for construction of the road. Ball says he made no profit from those transactions.
Ball has been quiet publicly about the proposed eastern segment of the beltway, which he says could divert business from the four hotels and motels that he owns. Privately he has been critical of the road, saying it would harm Richmond's economy.
Ball sits on several key legislative panels that wield power over the highway department, including the Roads and Appropriations committees and the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, which is conducting a major study of the department's management. He notes that none of the panels deal directly with road locations.
"They don't ask me where to locate the roads -- if they had [the roads] wouldn't be where they are today." Ball says.
The landholders point out that in most cases they bought their tracts long before the road's layout was drawn up. Highway Commissioner King agrees and says, "The city was trying to start something" with its allegation.
"I thought that [the allegation] was very bad taste," King says. "Everything is above board."
There are other public figures profiting from the beltway. Virginia Republican Party contributor C.B. Robertson III recently closed a deal for development of a major corporate headquarters project on 560 acres he owns at an already-completed beltway interchange with i-95.
The deal is strictly a Republican venture. Robertson's brother-in-law, Charles S. Luck III, who helped provide some of Robertson's financing, was on the Virginians for Ronald Reagan steering committee; the corporation moving in an acting as codeveloper of the property is A-T-O Inc., a Cleveland conglomerate whose board chairman is conservative GOP contributor Harry Figgie Jr.; Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton helped woo Figgie's firm to the area, aided by Washington lawyer John O. Marsh Jr., a former GOP congressman being mentioned as the Reagan administration's like Secretary of the Army.
At DOT headquarters in Washington, some staff members appear more concerned at the moment with job resumes than with deciding what to do about the Richmond beltway. But Secretary Goldschmidt has vowed to attempt to clean off his deck before. departing next month, and aides say he hopes to make a final ruling on the road by then.
Goldschmidt killed one beltway-style interstate in November 1979, when he ruled against the construction of most of a road proposed by the Ohio Department of Transportation for the Dayton area. Circumstances were similar to Richmond's in that Dayton had an older, decaying economy that was threatened by the road, and no consensus had been reached between the city and warring suburbs.
Should he decide to kill the road, Goldschmidt will have for ammunition the soon-to-becompleted report of the Battelle Institute of Ohio, a consulting firm hired to do the community impact analysis that mayors Marsh and Hermanze Fauntleroy of Petersburg requested.A draft copy of that report draws no firm conclusion on whether the road should be built, but outlines "a number of adverse impacts" and says each city "could potentially lose retail expenditures, employment opportunities and local tax receipts by 1995."
But a number of DOT staff members favor the project, which has won approval from the Federal Highway Administration's regional office here. And Highway Commissioner King says even if Goldschmidt rejects the proposal for the road, the state simply will resubmit the proposal to what he believes will be a more sympathetic Reagan administration once it takes office.
Marsh, who says it is absurd for the federal government to give the city millions of dollars annually to prop up its economy while committing nearly $500 million for a road that would tear it down, professes optimism that the road will be stopped. He gained some hope this week from members of Reagan's Transportation transition team who urged that the incoming administration review all major proposed, but unbuilt, interstate highway segments.
But at least one high city official, who will not allow his name to be used, says the cards are stacked in favor of the state.
"No matter how many federal people are for us, it's very difficult for them because the money for the road has already been ear-marked," he says. "The mechanism is all in place. It's next to impossible to stop this road."