Keith Whittaker lived for decades on 35 or so steep, wooded acres just off U.S. 221, near the base of Bent Mountain.
The retired heavy equipment mechanic still makes his home there. But now when he looks out his back door, there’s a broad and flat 5-acre plateau of brown dirt.
Since mid-November, the dump trucks have been rumbling onto the property and dumping and leaving and coming back, hundreds of times most work days, like worker ants in a giant colony.
Ten or so cubic yards at a time, they’ve been moving dirt from a big job about 4 miles north and east along on 221. It’s the $20 million Virginia Department of Transportation project to straighten out the S curves between Crystal Spring and Cotton Hill roads.
That project is slated to be finished around late summer 2013. It involves widening a roughly 1-mile section of 221, removing two hellacious curves, building new bridges — and moving almost 374,000 cubic yards of earth.
In concrete, that amount would translate roughly into a 22-story-tall block the length and width of a football field.
About 33,000 cubic yards of fill dirt will be used in the roadwork itself, said Jason Bond, a VDOT spokesman. The rest will be disposed of at four approved sites in southwest county. One is located off Merriman Road two are on Old Mill Road. All have been reviewed for drainage and environmental issues and approved, he said.
At this point, only the Whittaker property has been used for disposal – he said he’s getting about 150,000 yards of the fill. Whittaker, 70, expects the dumping on his land will continue through July.
I asked him if he was getting paid to take all that dirt. The Australian native, who moved here in the late 1960s, laughed and said “no, not a dime.”
“This is the best thing that ever happened to this property,” he told me. When the dumping is finished, “I’ll have as nice a tract of land as anyone in southwest county.”
“And you know what’s paying for it? The stimulus!”
He’s absolutely right about that. The road-straightening project has been on the books since the mid-1990s but has been repeatedly delayed because of VDOT funding shortfalls.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, aka the stimulus, is covering the costs.
Whittaker approached VDOT when he leaned the project was a “go” and asked them to consider his land as a dump site for earth that had to be moved.
“That was one hell of a ravine down there, at one time,” he told me last week, gesturing to the east side of his home. “I couldn’t even get a tractor to mow it. It was too damn steep.”
VDOT inspected the land and decided it was suitable, and what followed was a survey, a contract, and no little amount of engineering work.
The dump site is ringed with berms and silt fencing. Compared to its size, little of it has washed away during some severe storms this spring.
The deep ravine is now long gone, buried beneath scores of feet of dirt that bulldozers have tamped down and pushed around.
The site is so massive that you can easily view it miles away, from high up on Bent Mountain. It looks like a giant dirt scar near the base.
Because it will still take years to settle, Whittaker’s new land isn’t suitable for building. He says it’ll be planted with grass and some trees and perhaps fenced in as a horse pasture.
“But you could put in there that I have plans to build a low-income trailer court,” he joked. “That’ll get the neighbors in an uproar.”