Shepherdstown: 18th-century town, 20th-century woes Traffic tangles West Virginia's oldest town

October 09, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - Imagine horses instead of cars, and it might be fairly well impossible to know that the year is 1997, not 1797.

This is West Virginia's oldest town, settled in 1762, and much of it is still old and quaint in a legitimate sense, not gentrified into one Olde Shoppe after another. Main streets are full of stately Federal, Colonial and Victorian buildings constructed in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many sidewalks are brick. A church cemetery at the east end of town dates from 1747.

The year-round population is about 1,300, a comfortable but slowly growing mix of small-business owners, artists, retirees and commuters who don't mind the daily grind to Washington, about 60 miles to the southeast.

One of the town's favorite diversions is the Millbrook Orchestra, a classy group of three dozen musicians; many residents boast that they live in the nation's smallest town with its own symphony orchestra. The season's opening concert, on Saturday night, featured Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

But, alas, this is 1997, and Shepherdstown has a modern-day problem, caused in part by its own attractiveness.

Residents back bypass

With tourists, antique hunters and students at Shepherd College, a state liberal arts school, swelling daytime traffic through much of the year, many residents are supporting a plan to build a mile-long bypass southwest of the town center that would ease congestion and provide easier access to two nearby interstate highways.

At the same time, a growing number of people, even some who favor a bypass to unclog downtown, say that easing congestion and improving access would only make the town more inviting. They fear that developers would turn open space into subdivisions with as many as 600 single-family homes that would change the ambience and turn Shepherdstown into just another distant suburb of Washington.

"West Virginia has 55 counties, and in 54 of them people are beating the bushes for new development," said the mayor of Shepherdstown, Vince Parmesano, a retired Army officer serving his second two-year term. "Here, people are appalled at the suggestion."

The conflict flows directly from a single spot on the town map, "the four-way," as the intersection of German and Duke Streets is commonly known, where stop signs greet traffic from all directions.

The two-lane streets, which cross at the west end of the downtown commercial district, are main thoroughfares to Interstate 70 in Maryland, the primary route to Washington, and Interstate 81, which slices through West Virginia 10 miles to the west.

To get just about anywhere in Shepherdstown, you have to drive through the four-way, and during the school year that can be a nightmare. Many of the students who attend classes at Shepherd College are daily commuters from nearby towns in West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland. Lines of cars at the stop signs can stretch a half-mile or more, causing waits of eight or nine minutes.

While that may seem a minor annoyance compared with crosstown traffic in Manhattan, it has caused enough concern that West Virginia's Department of Highways has allocated $2.5 million for a bypass.

'A little more planning'

Several options as to the specific route are being considered, and the state is not expected to make a final determination until December. But growth made possible by a new road worries many residents, who are already concerned about the impact of two new government buildings in town. A training center for the Fish and Wildlife Service opened in early September, and the Office of Management and Budget is building a hotel-like center to hold seminars.

"I don't want to keep anybody out, but I would like to see a little more planning," said Diana Suttenfield, an artist who lives near whatever route the new road would take and who contends that residents' concerns have been ignored. "We're hoping to stall it," Suttenfield said, "at least get more time for more studies."

Parmesano said he sympathized with those who object. Traffic lights at the four-way would have been an alternative, he said, but they would have required left-turn lanes to make any difference, and neither street is wide enough. Another option, to build the bypass not in the southwest corner of town but in the northwest, across the college campus, was deemed too expensive.

Now, with traffic building, Parmesano said, the time has come to act, and a southwest bypass is better than nothing, especially since state financing is available.

"People come here from Washington and Baltimore and find that it's a great place to live," he said. "So they move here and don't want to change anything. Then they say, 'Let's not let anybody else in.'

"We recognize that the area is going to grow. We just have to figure out how we can preserve the ambience."

Pub Date: 10/09/97

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