Peter and Barbara Karabots worry that their dream home on the water may turn into a nightmare when a new bridge is built over the Potomac River between King George County and Maryland.
It's not the drilling of pylons, noise from construction or glare from large lights used at night—basically in their extended backyard—that has them worried the most. They're more concerned because the bridge is taking waterfront acreage from Wayside Park, which is on one side of them, and federal law dictates that any land taken has to be replaced with a parcel of equal value and use.
The couple is afraid the home on the other side of their property might be the replacement.
"We could be sandwiched between two parks," Barbara Karabots said, adding she and her husband have agonized over the impact on their daily lives and property values. "The hardest thing about all this is not being able to find out any information."
"And you always assume the worst," he added.
The Karabotses are in informational limbo, stuck between government agencies responsible for clearing the way for the new Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial/Sen. Thomas "Mac" Middleton Bridge. As of last fall, that's the name, both of the current structure whose 1938 groundbreaking was attended by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and for the new bridge on the horizon.
The Maryland Transportation Authority hopes to start construction for the new structure next year and open it by 2023. The new bridge will have four lanes of traffic, two in each direction, doubling the current carrying capacity. Additional lanes are meant to ease backups on both sides of U.S. 301—in King George and Charles County, Md.—particularly on summer weekends.
Maryland is covering the estimated $765 million cost, and the Virginia Department of Transportation has allocated $13 million to widen and align the approach to the bridge on the Virginia side. VDOT also will relocate the intersection of Roseland Road, the last left turn on the King George side before the bridge.
VDOT also is charged with securing the needed right-of-ways on its side and finding a replacement for the 5.8 acres of land affected by the road widening at Wayside Park, Barnesfield Park and the Dahlgren Heritage Museum.
And that's where the Karabotses and their property, valued at $849,300 by King George County, come into play.
A PLAN FOR THE FUTURE
When the couple bought the 2-acre site in 2003, they had their choice of four same-size lots on Roseland Road in a small development called Parkbridge on the Potomac. They chose the one next to Wayside Park because they thought the wooded piece of park property would be a good buffer against future development.
Over the years, they've shooed off the occasional park visitor who's climbed onto their private dock or scaled the bank to their pool. Those instances aside, the property has been a beautiful place to come home to, the couple said, and they'd like to retire there.
"From Day One of our marriage [almost 30 years ago], we said we were going to work hard and save and retire at 55," he said.
"So we could enjoy life," she added.
They haven't quite met the age goal. She's 58, and for the last 2½ years, has worked most of her time in a retail store in Hong Kong. He's almost 61, retired, and travels back and forth between an apartment in Hong Kong and King George.
She was hoping to retire next year, but when news of the bridge construction loomed large, the two gave up their apartment so he could focus on finding out what's happening with their King George property.
"We knew about the new bridge," she said, "but we thought we'd be dead and gone by then."
The Karabots' neighbors are Lewis and Shirley Buckler, whose home is worth $685,200, according to county records. In early June, Peter Karabots said he learned from his neighbors that they had a contract on their property with Virginia officials, who planned to use their land to replace what was being lost at Wayside Park.
As the Karabotses reached out to county and state officials to learn about the future use of the property, they were told that no final decisions have been made. And that officials are prohibited by state code from discussing property acquisition in such cases. Or that the couple should talk to another agency because the information they were requesting was beyond that agency's realm of responsibility.
"My concerns escalate," Peter Karabots wrote in an email to VDOT last week. "We cannot allow you folks to ruin our property values and our lives."
Here's what's known so far.
No real-estate transaction between the Bucklers and VDOT has been recorded in King George County. The Bucklers declined to comment on the situation, but for some time, they've had their home on the market for $795,000. They often told friends they didn't want to live through bridge construction.
The Buckler property is one of about a dozen sites county and VDOT officials have looked at, said King George County Administrator Neiman Young.
VDOT officials can't say if they've signed a contract on any site they've researched or if they're looking to replace what's lost at Wayside with one parcel or several.
"It could be anything," said Marcie Parker, Fredericksburg District's engineer for VDOT.
NO EMINENT DOMAIN
One thing seems certain—King George officials have drawn a line in the sand in terms of what they want as a replacement for lost parkland.
They want waterfront property that's easy to access, said Jeff Bueche, chairman of the King George Board of Supervisors. He said VDOT has shown them property with riverfront views, but they were from the top of cliffs or through the woods.
"We're losing basically our only [public] beach in the county and that's what we want" as a replacement, Bueche said.
Parker said some of the sites the county presented contained easements for open space or deed restrictions. The National Park Service will not accept land into its system with either, and Wayside Park and Barnesfield Park are both part of the National Park Service's Federal Lands to Parks program.
Young said county officials haven't limited their search to property near Wayside. They've looked elsewhere on the Potomac, as well as the Rappahannock River and even on lakes.
"Every time a waterfront property comes up for sale, we automatically submit it to VDOT," said at-large Supervisor Ruby Brabo. "We are all in agreement that we are not using eminent domain" to take land for the project.
When the county does get replacement land, Young said he wants to provide "more robust services" than currently offered at Wayside, which includes a strip of beach, picnic tables and a few grills.
Young wants a facility where residents who don't have private access to water could rent canoes and kayaks. Peter Karabots said Young told him a parking lot could be built across Roseland Road from his home, and Peter Karabots started sending out emails asking for detailed plans about the county's proposed "water park."
"The board hasn't come to a conclusion on anything yet," Young said, adding that the county can't describe the plans it has until it knows what piece of property it's getting. "I've been trying to convey that to him."
GIVING UP A DREAM
VDOT has until next summer to get the right-of-way issues with replacement property and utilities resolved because that's when construction on the Virginia side is expected to start. VDOT has $1.8 million allocated for those expenses.
While King George maintains it can't move forward until VDOT presents a deed, it's not as if county officials don't know what land is being considered.
"It would be foolish to start the process without getting the approval of the county," Parker said.
As for the Karabotses, they said they're going to try to get away from the impending bridge over troubled waters.
"After everything we have discovered this week, we have no choice but to give up our dream retirement home," Peter Karabots said in an email. "County is forcing us out. Home is going on the market soon."