by BARBARA OSGOOD, for the Sun Gazette
The bedraggled old skunk lumbered past me as I was loading my dogs into the car. He showed no interest in the lone human and three elderly canines in his path. He was on a mission. He followed the concrete curb with his nose until he reached the culvert under the street, and disappeared into its depths.
He was looking for a new home.
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“Home sweet home.” Our society pays homage to it on embroidered pillows, painted signs and carved wooden plaques. Whether it is a cattle ranch in Wyoming, a condominium in Florida, a split-level in Fairfax or a tent under a bridge in a homeless encampment, “home” is seen as a refuge, a place to escape from the outside world, a sanctuary.
The peace of our homes can be threatened by natural forces. But peace also can be threatened by forces we have power to control. And in our zeal to achieve what we view as “progress,” we can ignore even something as important to us as the sanctity of the home.
For those who live in the path of the Interstate 66 Outside the Beltway project, “home” has given way to that progress. And “sanctuary” has been the victim.
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The new I-66 is an open wound that stretches for miles through the midsection of Fairfax County. It towers over what once were quiet suburban neighborhoods like an enormous, many-tentacled concrete monster. Sound walls, ostensibly constructed to protect nearby homes from the noise of the highway, instead have encased them in a concrete tunnel that extends from one neighborhood to the next. Homes that in the past had a pleasant view from their decks now face a blank wall with no redeeming aesthetic value and questionable sound-reducing capabilities.
If home is so important to us all, how does this happen?
Before I-66 construction began, VDOT sponsored many public meetings where young VDOT employees earnestly explained impressive displays of maps and charts and assured attendees that the interests of the residents were being carefully considered.
Every meeting featured a public-comment period presided over by a VDOT panel. Comments were a formality to be endured; the panel members tried to look interested, but the glazed look in their eyes conveyed a different message. The impending plight of the people in the highway’s path did not interest them. They had already prepared a report for the federal Department of Transportation stating that the project had “no significant impact on the human environment.”
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My neighbors and I, like all homeowners along the path of the construction, have suffered for more than three years. Skunks were our early warning. They appeared everywhere, like refugees from a sinking ship. Some found refuge under patios and porches. Some were found dead. Some were trapped and relocated. And some, like my friend on the curb, looked for new homes.
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These peaceful creatures had been living in contented obscurity in the woods next to the neighborhood. Then the bulldozers arrived. In only a few days, hundreds of trees, underbrush, and wildflowers fell to the voracious blades. By the time they had finished their task, there was nothing left but a huge, gaping, muddy hole. The woods were gone. The skunks’ homes were gone, too. How many of them had survived to find a new place to live?
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The next time you drive on I-66, wondering whether you will get to your destination a few minutes faster than before, think of the thousands of trees and other vegetation, cut down, bulldozed, and carried away.
Think of the old skunk, looking for the peaceful, safe home he once had.
And think of the human victims. Homeowners who purchased their dream homes years ago, attracted to the peace and serenity of the Fairfax suburban landscape. Homeowners who once had a pleasant vista from their decks, and now look out on the ugly expanse of a sound wall. Homeowners who once had a back yard, and now have less of it. Homeowners who lost countless hours of sleep. Homeowners who endured three years or more of noise, dust and dynamite blasts, watching their sylvan landscape disappear under tons of concrete and gravel.
These are the people who, VDOT declared, would “suffer no significant impact” from the project.
They are the true heroes of I-66. They had to give up the sanctity of their homes for you.