BOTETOURT – Drivers who use the Blue Ridge Turnpike intersection at US 11 in the Mill Creek area can thank Lewis Sifford for making it easier and safer to navigate—at least those who use the intersection on the east side of US 11.
Sifford “fixed” the intersection a few months ago as part of a promise he made to county officials and neighbors after he bought property for a small housing development on the old Turnpike (Rt. 606) heading east towards Camp Bethel.
It’s appropriate to note here that he was under no obligation to fulfill that promise. As he put it, “It was just the right thing to do.”
The old intersection had a tough angle to it from US 11, and was steep enough that more than one clutch got burned as drivers found themselves trying to get up on the main highway.
The intersection, in fact, was the subject of concern when Sifford took a proposal to subdivide the old Camper farm for a small housing development a few years ago.
Neighbors who lived on Blue Ridge Turnpike worried about the extra traffic that more homes might bring, and in particular about that nasty intersection with US 11.
Sifford understood their concern. His family home is on that very corner and he’d seen the challenges drivers often had getting up the steep grade and the extreme angle that created a blind spot for some pulling out on to US 11.
At the time, the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors wondered if Sifford could do anything to correct the intersection.
Since his family home was on that corner, and there was enough property to adjust the intersection, he “proffered” to make improvements.
It wasn’t the first time, though, that a Sifford had to deal with the intersection, Lewis explained.
His grandfather, Chester Lewis Sifford, ran a general merchandise store (Sifford & Stevens) at the intersection, and a dairy farm.
A concrete wall with pipe railing ran along US 11 at the front of the building that was store and home. For years US 11 was a gravel road, then later it was widened and paved.
At one point, the highway department apparently decided to tear down the concrete wall, Sifford’s grandfather told him.
The highwaymen brought in a gang of convicts one morning to start the process, but Chester Sifford came out of the house and objected.
He told them the wall didn’t belong to the highway department and to stop.
They ignored him, so he went back inside, retrieved a shotgun and fired it once into the air.
The convicts stopped working, the crew packed up and that was that. No one came back to bother the wall again, Sifford said.
As happens, though, things change, and US 11 did. More traffic, more speed, and the Blue Ridge Turnpike intersection was moved closer to the Sifford house.
Lewis said he was told at one time the intersection was on the other side of what is the former Mill Creek Garage that’s across the Turnpike from his family home.
Finally, there was a serious accident at the intersection when a car pulled out from Blue Ridge Turnpike into the path of another vehicle. The concrete wall may have obstructed the driver’s view, and Chester Sifford had the wall torn down.
While that might have improved visibility, it didn’t do much for negotiating the intersection.
It took Lewis Sifford a couple years to finalize a subdivision plan for the Camper property, and when he did, he proffered he would “improve the intersection.”
The planners agreed to the subdivision with the proffer, then it took a while longer for the development to evolve.
Lewis said as lots sold, he contacted the Department of Transportation (VDOT) about the improvements. There was a problem, though. There wasn’t enough room to make improvements that would meet VDOT standards.
However, VDOT agreed to a plan apparently because any change would be better than the existing intersection—and it wouldn’t take VDOT money.
Since the project was an improvement that had nothing to do with his subdivision or roads in the subdivision, he asked about waiving the bonds that road building usually requires. That meant a trip to the county zoning office.
When that office asked the county attorney about the bond waiver, the attorney said the county couldn’t make him live up to the proffer—essentially, state law prohibits proffers that require developers to do projects that are not adjacent to the property being developed.
“The attorney said, ‘We can’t force him to do it.’ But I had to pay the bond,” Sifford said.
“You know, I gave my word I’d fix the intersection, so I did,” he added.
Sifford’s willingness to follow through on his work wasn’t lost on county officials. Steve Kidd, a member of the Planning Commission, lives on Blue Ridge Turnpike and was complimentary of Sifford. Kidd said Sifford didn’t have to fix the intersection.
“We have a lot of developers who proffer to do improvements that ought to be done by VDOT,” Buchanan District Board of Supervisors representative Terrry Austin said. “The public needs to understand that not all improvements are VDOT funded.”
The intersection “is much, much safer for anyone pulling out of that road,” Austin added.
Now, when drivers approach US 11, they’re not “looking into the sky,” Sifford pointed out. And while the intersection isn’t exactly a perfect “T” with the main highway, drivers can now see both ways when they reach the stop sign.
While neighbors on Blue Ridge Turnpike have benefited from the improved intersection, Sifford said he thinks folks pulling horse trailers have benefited the most. He said during the summer quite a few horse trailers navigate the intersection on the way to and from the horse trail that runs through the nearby Jefferson National Forest.
“Did I lose some money (fixing the intersection)? Probably. Did I make some money (on the subdivision)? I hope so—I still have a few lots to sell,” Sifford said. “But it was probably the right thing to do because I was putting traffic on the road.”