‘We’re extremely concerned’

Published 7:34 pm Saturday, June 27, 2015

Farmers: Nothing heavenly about country roads

Mike Griffin has a recurring nightmare that he’s certain is shared by fellow farmers in Suffolk.

Griffin envisions driving a large piece of farm equipment down a narrow back road with overhanging branches and meeting a school bus full of kids, perhaps going a bit too fast or coming around a curve where the driver can’t see him in time.

Mike Griffin uses a tape measure to gauge the distance from an oak branch to the surface of Pittmantown Road. It was 15 feet, he said.

Mike Griffin uses a tape measure to gauge the distance from an oak branch to the surface of Pittmantown Road. It was 15 feet, he said.

He doesn’t even want to imagine the rest.

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“We are all extremely concerned about public safety,” he said recently while taking a reporter on a tour of some back roads that illustrated his points.

Low-hanging vegetation, weight limits on bridges, poor ditch maintenance and other concerns are the talk of farmers in the southern and western portions of Suffolk. Many are eager to speak about them.

“We haven’t seen any ditch-cleaning out here of any magnitude in 15 years,” Ray Ward said. “If you make enough noise, they’ll come and clean a little spot out, but that doesn’t do any good. They just keep making excuses why they won’t clean the ditches out.”

Weight limits on small bridges are major concerns for many farmers, who can’t legally take their equipment across many of them. They’re forced to break the law when there’s no other way to get to their fields, farmer Tim Copeland said.

“They’ve got to drive a cotton-picker that’s 50,000 pounds — when it’s empty — and they’ve got to cross a bridge that’s 12,000 pounds weight limit. How are you going to get your crop out of the field?” Copeland asked.

One bridge on Arthur Drive currently has a six-ton weight limit. Not just farm equipment is prohibited from legally crossing it — fire trucks, trash collection trucks and even an empty school bus couldn’t legally make the crossing.

Griffin said low-hanging vegetation is also a concern. One oak branch he measured recently on Pittmantown Road is only 15 feet from the roadway.

“I don’t want my equipment beat up by branches,” he said.

Griffin praised the city for taking care of problem areas regarding low-hanging branches relatively quickly when they are pointed out — usually within four to six weeks, he said.

Public Works Director Eric Nielsen pointed out that the maximum allowable height of a vehicle in Virginia is 13 feet, 6 inches, so a limb that’s 15 feet from the road shouldn’t be a problem.

Regarding bridge weight limits, Nielsen noted that the city has raised or eliminated the weight restrictions on five bridges since 2006, when it took over roadway maintenance from the Virginia Department of Transportation and inherited 18 bridges that had weight restrictions.

On Manning Bridge Road, Robbie Road and Harvest Drive, the weight restrictions were eliminated, Nielsen said. On Mineral Springs Road and Longstreet Lane, they were raised substantially — from 10 to 18 tons and from 17 to 24 tons, respectively.

Two bridges on Arthur Drive, currently posted at 6 and 9 tons, are scheduled to be replaced this summer and will have no weight restrictions after construction, Nielsen said.

Griffin said he hopes the city eventually replaces every small bridge with a concrete culvert, which eliminates weight restrictions as well as maintenance.

“It’s one and done,” Griffin said. “I would not expend tax dollars to rebuild a bridge that doesn’t need to be a bridge to start with. Let’s not go re-build a bridge just to say we fixed it so we can do maintenance on it for the next 25 years and have a restricted weight limit. It’s common sense.

“They did a wonderful job on Manning Bridge Road,” Griffin added. “Smart move — let’s do it everywhere. Let’s not rebuild any bridges in this city with six- and eight- and nine-ton weight limits. That is not the conduct of a visionary city.”

Nielsen said bridges on Pittmantown, Old Mill and Carolina roads are also due to be replaced in upcoming years.

Griffin and his fellow farmers say the city’s takeover of maintenance from VDOT was a mistake.

“I don’t think they were ready to chew what they bit,” Griffin said.

“We took over something we had no business taking over,” Copeland added. “It was a huge mistake.”

But they remain hopeful the situation will improve.