June 21, 2004

Strategy To Save Bridge Takes Shape

Failure To Obtain permit Could Hold Up Demolition

In a bid to by time for Clarkton Bridg, advocates of the condemned structure are preparing to challenge VDOT - in court and elsewhere - for not obtaining a key permit for demolition work.

With VDOT officials scheduled to meet with a contractor today to review steps for taking down the span, the strategy of the Clarkton Bridge Alliance and its allies is taking shape. According to CBA members, VDOT has yet to obtain a permit for the bridge's demolition from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which has regulatory authority over the state's waterways. They believe the lack of a permit may offer a chance to delay demolition work and give the community time to rally support for the bridge's preservation.

Forcing VDOT to obtain a permit from the Marine Resources Council could "open the decision up to another round of public hearings and having our voices heard," said P.K. Pettus, a member of the bridge alliance from Charlotte County.

Pettus and other CBA members were on hand yesterday for a rally at Clarkton Bridge sponsored by the Southside Concerned Citizens. Jack Dunavant, SCC's chairman, urged a crowd of about 120 people to mobilize on behalf of the bridge, a call welcomed by members of the bridge alliance (see related story.)

But the public campaign to save Clarkton Bridge could come to a halt almost as soon as it has begun if VDOT proceeds quickly with demolition of the bridge. VDOT has set a deadline of Dec. 15, 2004 for finishing the work.

In the past week, advocates have scrambled to find a way to stall VDOT, leading to meetings with several local attorneys to review potential legal options. CBA members feel their best chance may be to seek a court injunction against VDOT for what they describe as the department's failure to obtain. the Marine Resources Commission permit.

Citing past conversations and e-mails she had with state officials, Pettus argued this week that demolition cannot take place without VMRC approval because the Staunton River in Halifax and Charlotte Counties is a state scenic river. She and other bridge alliance members contend that demolition raises a host of environmental issues, since VDOT will dynamite the bridge over the waterway and then dig out the debris.

Douglas Powell, a CBA member from Halifax, underscored the point in an e-mail to VMRC officials this week. "We understand the steel bridge contains leaded paint. We know of no way the contractor can remove the bridge from over the Staunton (Roanoke) River and the steel piers from the river bed without affecting the river bed," Powell wrote.

In a separate e-mail sent to the Marine Resources Commission this week, Pettus recounted her own past communications in which state officials signaled the necessity of going before the marine commission before beginning demolition.

"Beginning in late February, we had several conversations and exchanged e-mails regarding the Clarkton Bridge which crosses the Staunton Scenic River between Charlotte and Halifax counties," Pettus wrote this week to Bob Grabb, an official with VMRC's Habitat Division in Newport News. "I contacted you, at the suggestion of Fred Fisher in the Attorney General's office, to determine if a permit from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission would be needed to transfer responsibility for Clarkton Bridge from VDOT to (interim ownership). You stated that--no permit was needed unless we proposed to undertake activity in the river, such as construction, repair, or demolition."

Seizing on that point, Pettus asked, "Has VDOT or their contractor submitted a request for a permit to undertake any aspect of work leading to the demolition of Clarkton Bridge? What is the timetable for review of this application?

"VDOT's about-face came as a surprise to the citizens, local governments, and not-for-profit organizations that had worked together with VDOT since January to develop and implement a plan for preserving the bridge," she wrote.

SCC chairman Dunavant said yesterday that he, too, feels time can be bought to resolve the issue. "We have too many good people working on this project not to be able to buy some time."

Another strategy tried by bridge supporters - appealing to the Commonwealth Transportation Board to overturn VDOT's decision -- went nowhere Thursday. At the CTB's monthly meeting in Richmond, alliance members had ten minutes to make their case. But VDOT Commissioner Philip Shucet cut off the arguments by saying that the decision to demolish Clarkton Bridge was one he made personally and was irrevocable. According to alliance members, Shucet expressed regret that the bridge hadn't been torn down a year ago.

Also on Thursday morning meeting in a special session, members of the Halifax County Industrial Development Authority asked VDOT for a 45 day delay in orderto allow time for them to work with the IDA of neighboring Charlotte County to form a joint authority to take over permanent ownership of Clarkton Bridge. Halifax attorney Ted Bennett said late yesterday that he believes this avenue of a regional authority formed by the two counties to take over ownership may be the best approach to preserving the structure.