They came to tell the state highway department that they don't want their country road paved and widened.
More than a dozen landowners along Rte. 626 gathered with scores of others in Bluemont last week to talk about the narrow, two-mile gravel road that is lined with 100-year-old stone fences and shaded by a canopy of oak, ash, hickory and dogwood trees.
While most people in Northern Virginia are demanding new, bigger and better roads, the state's plan to pave and widen Rte. 626 has upset more than a few of the 200 residents in this Loudoun County town at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
"It's a million-dollar road to nowhere," said Phillip Dodderidge at the public hearing held last week in the old Bluemont schoolhouse by the Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation. Dodderidge's wife Linda said she frequently drives a pony cart along the road, where their family owns a horse farm.
Actually, the Rte. 626 residents did not expect to be wrangling with the state over the road paving. Last February the county asked the state to take the project out of its six-year highway improvement plan.
But the state is still reviewing the county's request, and the public hearing was held as scheduled.
The school room was packed with 80 people, its windows flung open to let in a breeze that carried the sweet smell of honeysuckle mingling with the sounds of boys playing ball.
State Engineer Tom Butler told the residents that the two-lane paving project with four-foot shoulders on each side "is not expected to have an adverse effect on the character of the neighborhood." His comments were met with groans.
Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chairman James F. Brownell made it clear that the county stands behind its February decision. "Although there was testimony both for and against the Rte. 626 project at the board's public hearing, there appeared to be an unwillingness on the part of the landowners to donate the necessary right of way and strong sentiment against the project," the chairman said.
What followed was a rapid-fire onslaught against the $812,000 state paving proposal by those who want to keep their unpaved road. The proponents were mostly residents from nearby Frazier Hill and other developments with three- to five-acre lots who use the road and would like to see it improved to cut down on dust and make it more passable during bad weather. An informal tally placed the speakers at 12 for the paving and 24 against, with those living along Rte. 626 overwhelmingly opposed.
"We looked for a long time to find the kind of place we wanted to live," said Kathryn H. Sokolski, who moved seven years ago from Fairfax County into a home on Rte. 626 and opposes the paving. "Bluemont was what we wanted . . . just the way it is."
Roberta Lloyd, a 10-year resident of Frazier Hill, noted that 24 more lots are available in addition to the 11 homes now located there. She said she favors the paving because increased use of the road is causing safety hazards and dust and because the stone walls are "an eyesore."
Rte. 626 resident Linda Watts, whose family lives in an 18th century log cabin 20 feet from the road, called the proposal "a textbook case of boondoggle. It was started by a person no one can remember and for a reason that no longer exists."
Her husband, Marvin Watts, questioned the "public need" to speed between Bluemont and Bloomfield, the two tiny towns that the road connects. "It's a simple country road," he said, "and most of us don't mind it acting normal. In fact, a good bit of snow and a little mud keeps me free from my creditors." Watts said that more than 90 percent of the landowners who would be directly affected by the project are against it. "A dirt road is friendlier than a paved one," he said.
Watts ended his remarks with a quote from Loudoun County native and Pulitzer Prize winner Russell Baker: "Usually terrible things done with the excuse that progress requires them are not progress but terrible things."
One landowner with sizable frontage on Rte. 626 supports it, however. Dairy farmer Ralph Cochran, who acknowledged that he has his property up for sale, spoke in favor. "Fairfax County's coming here," he predicted, adding that he has wanted the road paved since he moved to Bluemont 20 years ago.
Patti and Dan Miller just bought land on Rte. 626 to build their first House and had no knowledge of the paving controversy until this spring. "We looked four years for this piece of land," Patti Miller said. "Please keep it country."
At the close of the session, Butler explained that the citizen comments and the county board's proposed removal of the road from the state plan will be taken into consideration before a final decision is made. If the current plan is implemented, however, he said, right of way would be donated or purchased from the 24 affected landowners and the Rte. 626 project would be advertised for construction bids next spring.