About half of Michale and Ellen Maxey’s six acres off Centralia Road is wetlands protected by a conservation easement, which keeps it in a natural state – a dense forest canopy shading several species of ferns, milkweed and calico aster. Great Branch Creek winds through the property, providing an easy water access for deer, beaver and geese.
The Maxeys have taken lessons from the wetland habitat and extended nature up a slope where their home hugs the hillside. Apart from their vegetable garden are peach, apple and persimmon trees that escort visitors to their wildflower garden.
“They’re only wildflowers until you give them a purpose,” Mike Maxey said of his wildflower garden. “We have sort of a micro-ecosystem here.”
The Maxey’s property is ground zero in what may become a battle of property rights when high-speed rail is built through Chesterfield. The South East High Speed Rail (SEHSR) project will add an additional track, if and when it’s funded, to the CSX rail that runs north and south through the county. The recent completion of a Tier II environment impact study provided the public with detailed maps of where the line would run and how upgrades to rail crossings would affect property owners along the route.
An aerial crossover that will span the tracks and Chester Road and then loop back to Chester Road could take most the Maxey’s property and their home.
“We’ve watched great horned owls trying to coax their chicks to fly,” Maxey said. “If people just came by and saw this; it would lead to a much bigger conversation.”
According to the Chesapeake Bay Act any impact on wetlands must be mitigated – replaced or built at another location.
But Maxey not only laments the loss of his home and the natural habitat around it, but questions the validity of the project overall. “I’m surprised no one has offered any opposition, there’s no economic justification to put in high-speed rail; Amtrak is losing money so how do you expect high-speed rail to make money?”
Maxey may have a good point. According to Amtrak’s ridership data, the Washington, D.C., to Newport News train lost 13,000 passengers from 2008 to 2009. Nationwide, ridership fell 5 percent.
Yet, the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) has added a new train to run from Richmond to Washington. According to Thelma Drake, director of DRPT: “Recently, we launched a new train from Richmond’s Staples Mill station to the Northeast Corridor to provide hourly morning departures and more convenient return trips with a one-seat ride as far north as Boston. And let’s not forget the new Lynchburg service launched in October 2009, which met its annual ridership and revenue goals in the first six months.
“This success has fueled interest in expanding passenger rail service throughout Virginia,” Drake says in a recent commentary for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Maxey flies a pirate flag on his property in some open space about 100 feet from Old Centralia Road. “It may be symbolic for what could happen here,” Maxey said. “This was going to be our last house. What do you do when your last refuge is stripped away from you?”
Public hearings on the SEHSR corridor have been completed, but comment can be made until Aug. 30. By late 2011, the Tier II Final Environmental Impact Study will be complete and it will be recorded in spring 2012. Right of way and construction dates will depend on funding, with the earliest right of way acquisition beginning in mid 2012.