When Kathleen and Sheldon Richman moved into their brand-new house last year, they thought it was for good. The two-story Colonial had many amenities: a two-car garage, four large bedrooms and a location on a quiet cul-de-sac where their two small children could safely play.
But the sense of permanence was not to last. Barely three months after they finished unpacking, the Richmans learned that their house would have to be razed to make way for the Springfield Bypass. Four of their neighbors got the same bad news.
"It's going to go right through our dining room," said Kathleen Richman. "We've felt like we were in temporary housing ever since it was three months old."
Officials of the Virginia Department of Transportation describe the situation at the Innisfree subdivision in Springfield as a special case. When the Richmans bought their house, state maps showed that it would not be affected by the bypass. The land was slated for condemnation only after an increase in traffic projections forced the last-minute redesign of an interchange at Sydenstricker Road.
But in other ways the Richmans' dilemma illustrates the human costs of highway construction. Dozens of families will be relocated to make way for the Springfield Bypass. Because it has taken so long to plan, some families have endured years of uncertainty while highway engineers debated the path of the road and the fate of their houses.
Others, such as the Richmans, would like to move to new homes now. But the state will not buy their property until the plans are formally approved.
The lengthy planning process also causes headaches for highway engineers, who must fight to preserve right of way long before any funds are allocated. To protect the Springfield Bypass, Fairfax County last year paid a developer $1.3 million for 17 lots, some with foundations already poured. Other right-of-way issues have yet to be resolved, including the question of 60 graves near Burke Lake Park that may have to be moved.
The cost of acquiring the right of way for the entire project is estimated at $18 million, according to Fairfax County Transportation Director Shiva Pant. It will be borne by the state and the county, which are sharing responsibility for the project.
Transportation officials say right-of-way problems are an inevitable part of building a road. They note that only 55 homes will be condemned for the project, a small number for a 35-mile highway through Virginia's fastest-growing county. And they say there should be no more last-minute changes of the sort that disrupted the Richmans' lives.
"If someone comes in here and takes a look at the maps, they can be 90 percent certain whether their house is going to be taken," Pant said. "There is so much right of way that is already dedicated that it has locked in where we can put the road."
Those assurances are small comfort to Frank Gordon, the developer of the Innisfree subdivision.
"It's absurd," said Gordon. "It's so stupid for them to have allowed us to build all these houses willy-nilly. It's a waste of the taxpayers' money."
Gordon said the county government informed him in 1983 that the road would skirt the development, and he agreed to give up three acres as right of way.
"They asked for what they wanted, and they got what they wanted," he said. "Why didn't they ask for more?"
When the Richmans paid $140,000 for their house last year, they said, they did so with the assurance that the Springfield Bypass would not affect their property.
"We thought it was going to be a quarter of a mile away on the other side of those woods," said Kathleen Richman with a wave toward the trees behind the house.
But as the Richmans settled into their house, the state was quietly revising its plans for the road.
Based on traffic projections completed in 1982, engineers had decided that a conventional intersection would suffice at the junction of Sydenstricker Road and the Springfield Bypass. Based on more recent projections, engineers were convinced that an elaborate interchange was needed.
This spring, the Richmans and four other homeowners learned that their houses would be replaced by an entrance ramp.
"A neighbor came over and said, 'Have you heard the Springfield Bypass is going through our houses?' " recalled Kathleen Richman. She said she went to a public information meeting on the bypass, and there on a map was her house, marked with a red X.
"There wasn't much we could do," said Dewey Litton, the state's project manager for the Springfield Bypass. Litton said that engineers considered shifting the alignment to the south but abandoned that idea because it would have taken houses in another subdivision.
The state informed the homeowners that they would receive "fair market value" for their houses, as well as moving expenses and compensation for losses from higher mortgage rates. "They said things like, 'There's no way you can lose financially,' " said Kathleen Richman.
Once the fate of their house was sealed, the Richmans said, they wanted to put the episode behind them. They wanted to move into a new house before their third child is born in November, and they were concerned about disrupting their eldest child's schooling.
Sheldon Richman, the director of public affairs at the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University, said they were losing interest in property improvements, knowing that nothing they did would have lasting value.
"Care for the lawn? What's the point?" he asked.
In February, the state was supposed to approve the bypass plans formally, which would enable it to buy the dislocated houses. But the state has delayed the project while environmental challenges are considered.
In special "hardship" cases, the state will acquire property before it is actually needed. The Richmans applied but were told they do not qualify.
In the meantime, they have canceled a contract on a new house because they cannot sell their old one.
"I'm being held prisoner," Sheldon Richman said.