Cindy Mitchell tried not to panic when she heard that a highway might be built on top of Woodlawn Stables, a business she has poured herself into for 20 years.
She had heard the talk for years. Traffic-clogged Route 1 near Fort Belvoir needed to be widened because the Defense Department had added thousands of jobs to the military base in Fairfax County. This is just more talk, she thought. It won’t happen.
But now plans are on track to relieve congestion on a 3½-mile stretch of Route 1, with construction to begin as soon as next year. It appears likely that Mitchell, her riding students and her 40 horses will be the biggest losers in a contentious debate over how best to get the job done: widen the existing roadway or build a bypass. Both sides agree that there is no good option.
The choices essentially came down to these: move graves and build on a cemetery and the property of a National Historic Landmark, or pave over the riding stables, which are considered an institution in the Mount Vernon area.
Route 1 has been known for its backups for decades. But the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure plan moved thousands of jobs — and commuters — to Fort Belvoir, making traffic even worse.
Residents warned seven years ago that roads, schools and communities would bear the consequences, and in Mount Vernon’s Woodlawn area, where the highway will become three times as wide to accommodate the influx, perhaps no one is bearing them more than Mitchell.
“I thought I’d be doing this for the rest of my life,” she said of the family business.
It’s the kind of situation local governments worried about in 2005.
Ronald Kirby, director of transportation planning for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, contrasted the situation created by the BRAC process to what typically occurs when there is a major influx of people and traffic. In most cases, he said, developers are required to identify and pay for traffic solutions.
“When DOD comes along, there’s no such contribution,” Kirby said. “They just drop their plans out of the sky” and those on the ground are left to cope.
Communities near BRAC-expanded bases have worked through traffic problems slowly, Kirby said, as funding for improvement projects has become available.
In the case of Route 1, real progress wasn’t made until 10 months ago, when the Pentagon gave $180 million for widening the highway, secured by a congressional earmark. The advance was heralded by local politicians, but it created a new problem: what to pave over in a community rich in history but dirt poor in unused space.
Widening the highway along its current path between Telegraph Road and Route 235 would require Woodlawn Baptist Church to move about 100 graves. Woodlawn Plantation, once a part of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, would have to give up a hillside and move at least one building, which dates from the 1870s.
The alternative, to build a bypass to the south, would move the expansion onto land where the stables have operated since at least the 1970s, bisecting the site. Mitchell said so much of her acreage would be lost that she probably would have to close.
Although the Federal Highway Administration is not expected to make a formal decision until next month, the two sides agree that widening the existing road appears to be off the table, and efforts are focused now on refining the bypass option.
It is an outcome that Mitchell is only beginning to get her head around.
Mitchell, 45, began riding at Woodlawn Stables when she was 8. She bought the business 17 years later with her mother, Joan Mitchell, also a lifelong rider. Under the new owners, the stables stopped selling horses, but it offers boarding and lessons for all ages and abilities. The business now has 30 employees.
Cindy Mitchell said she didn’t think the bypass was a real possibility until she saw it on a map at a public meeting this past winter.
“I nearly fell out of my chair,” she said. “The first words out of my mouth were, ‘That’s going to put us out of business.’ ”
By then, Joan, who died last month, had learned that she had cancer, so Cindy Mitchell left most of the fight over the highway to a group of instructors and students who mounted a Save Woodlawn Stables campaign. Through Facebook, fliers and e-mails to elected officials, they gained important endorsements of a widen-in-place option. Their supporters included Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) and Fairfax County Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon), whose district includes that stretch of Route 1.
But it was not enough. Even the stables’ defenders concede as much.
“They tell everyone they’re still deciding,” said David Fiske, Mitchell’s attorney. “But there’s no doubt in my mind it will be the bypass.”
Although they fought for the alternative, Mitchell and her supporters say they don’t like that option either, and they understand some of the arguments against it: No one wants the giant retaining walls that it would require; Woodlawn Plantation is a National Historic Landmark; exhuming human remains — some interred as recently as 1999 — just seems wrong.
And Woodlawn Stables isn’t even a landowner. Mitchell leases the property from the nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation, which also owns Woodlawn Plantation. The trust supports the bypass because that choice does more to protect historic resources.
Neither side disputes that Route 1 traffic is bad. During rush hours, backups sometimes stretch more than three miles. But both question whether the expanded roadway has to be so wide — 150 feet — and why it has to include right of way for public transportation that may never be built.
A big part of the answer, according to county officials, is BRAC.
The Federal Highway Administration says it continues to seek a solution that works for everyone. Officials are reworking the bypass plan to include relocating some of the stables to put them on the same side of the new highway as the pasture and riding areas. Initial plans called for an “equestrian underpass” for riders and horses, an idea that stables supporters called ridiculous.
Mitchell has looked into relocating, but she hasn’t found space in Fairfax. She guesses that she would have to move so far that she would probably lose most of her clients.
“I’d have to start over,” she said. “But what else can I do? I don’t know anything else.”