James City County Administrator Sandy Wanner tried, but couldn’t broker a deal to keep Jolly Pond Dam Road open while the county, state and a homeowner work to solve the safety issues at Jolly Pond Dam.
That means as of Monday morning hundreds of residents who use Jolly Pond Dam Road as it crosses the pond will be forced to take an 8-mile detour along Centerville Road.
Wanner met with a representative from the State Soil and Water Conservation Board Friday morning in a last-ditch attempt for compromise or, at least, another extension of the temporary permit to keep the road open. The permit, issued by the State Soil and Water Conservation Board because that’s the oversight body for dam compliance, expires today, Jan. 31. The state refused to extend it, as it has done twice already.
At issue is a tangle of citizens’ needs, including the ability of emergency vehicles to reach homes quickly as well as convenience; the private owner of the actual dam’s ability to finance such a huge cost for public good; and the state’s belief that the potential for a cave-in is real and puts travelers at immediate risk.
“It saddens me that this situation, affecting so many residents, has not been resolved,” Wanner said to the SWCB. Wanner said history – many believe Jolly Pond Dam was built by slaves, including the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, which put the dam on its 2008 endangered historic sites list – and the area’s natural beauty should be considered along with resident needs in keeping the dam road open. One of the state’s remedies to fix the dam is to cut down trees that make up the heavily forested site.
Powhatan District Supervisor Jim Icenhour, who sponsored a community meeting on the dam situation earlier this month, was furious.
“I feel we’ve been set up and betrayed by our state government,” he said. “We were assured that 30 days’ notice would be given to the County and its residents prior to the closing of the road.”
Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Tia Freeman said the information she had indicated the certificate’s expiration set the timeline, not promises made by individuals.
The March 1 potential for closure has been discussed repeatedly by county officials, as well as the 30-day notice before a permanent closure promised by VDOT.
Freeman said highway crews had placed temporary signage at either end of the dam road indicating its closure Monday morning. Residents were going to be notified, she said, with flyers hand-delivered to their residences.
County officials and residents have been puzzled by the state’s keen interest in the bridge, which is created by the earthen dam at the 53-acre Jolly Pond. Fewer than 400 cars cross it daily and the safety issues brought up by the state seem an absolute worst-case scenario unlikely to occur spontaneously.
State officials point to the letter of the law, and say to do any less than insist the dam meet current requirements is to put all travelers at imminent risk.
“The James City County operating certificate has lapsed. We cannot risk the safety of Commonwealth citizens by allowing the roadway to remain open because the dam is unstable,” said Dennis Heuer, VDOT’s administrator for the Hampton Roads District.
The dam first caught the state’s attention in 2006, after Tropical Storm Ernesto brought floodwaters that topped the dam. A follow-up inspection by the state’s Soil and Water Conservation Board found the dam wasn’t in compliance with the Code of Virginia’s Dam Safety Act, because the amount of water seepage is too great, and the spillways for floodwater are too small.
The dam road was closed for nine months until the state agreed to a temporary opening contingent upon bringing the dam into compliance.
Two extensions were granted for the necessary changes to bring the dam into compliance. During that time the dam owner leased the dam to the county, which hired an engineering firm to investigate options.
More information about the closure, including the Centerville Road detour, is available on VDOT’s website.