Prince William County has signed a three-year, $1.3 million contract with a communications firm to conduct community outreach for the county’s $300 million Va. 28 bypass proposal as it moves through the design and right-of-way process.
The contract did not come before the Prince William Board of County Supervisors for consideration because the board approved the bypass and the contract is “part of the project,” according to county spokeswoman Sherrie Johnson.
The firm will build awareness for the Va. 28 bypass through community outreach, stakeholder meetings and branding, including the development of a website, logo and tagline for the bypass, according to the firm’s contract.
Prince William County Transportation Director Ric Canizales said during a Prince William Board of County Supervisors meeting on Oct. 20 that the county had hired the firm to make sure the county is "messaging the project properly."
But the firm's contract also includes a proposal to “minimize resistance” to the bypass, a goal that is ill-defined within the firm’s scope of work.
Paulo Belita, a Prince William County Department of Transportation planner, said the term “minimize resistance” is not meant to deter public input on the project, however. Belita said the county’s primary objective in hiring the firm is to combat misinformation about the bypass project.
“We’re not trying to sway anyone’s opinion. We’re just trying to make sure the public has the right information,” Belita said. “We’re trying to minimize the inconsistencies out there.”
The Prince William Board of County Supervisors endorsed the route of the bypass on a party-line vote in September, with Democrats supporting the bypass and Republicans opposed, reversing course from an earlier decision to widen the existing Va. 28. The four-lane bypass would extend Godwin Drive in Manassas, cutting through several neighborhoods before crossing Bull Run Regional Park to connect with the existing road in Fairfax County.
The new road is estimated to require the taking of more than 50 homes, but the exact number of homes will not be known until the bypass design is complete.
The contract between Prince William County and Washington D.C.-based consulting firm The Clearing was inked in October 2020 and will continue through 2023. The county previously contracted with the firm on community outreach for the county’s proposal to change the zoning rules in the county’s protected rural area, known as the “rural crescent.”
Supervisor Victor Angry, D-Neabsco, echoed Belita’s concerns. Angry said that misinformation about the bypass project had created distrust between residents and county staff, and that “the best thing to do would be to get a third party and let them have that conversation.”
Angry specifically referred to an event that took place over the summer in which flyers with incorrect information about the bypass were allegedly posted in the Bull Run Mobile Home Community in Yorkshire, causing a backlash from residents. While the current bypass route is estimated to require the taking of between seven and 10 mobile homes in the park, the residents said they were told most or all of the 200 homes in the park would be taken with little or no compensation, which is not accurate.
“I want to eliminate all the fluff and the smokescreen and the noise, because the conversation needs to be had with the homeowners and the people who feel like they’re going to be affected,” Angry said. “A big part of that is getting the messaging the right.”
But two of the board’s Republican supervisors, who have opposed the bypass, were critical of the county’s decision to hire a consulting firm for the project. Supervisor Yesli Vega, R-Coles, who represents the district in which the bypass would be constructed, said Wednesday that The Clearing assisted with the “slick messaging” for the county’s rural policy discussions that resulted in a chaotic community meeting that required police presence.
“That meeting with the community ended in chaos after rural crescent residents caught on that the fix was in. I’m hopeful my constituents in the affected areas aren’t bamboozled by this firm either,” Vega said in an email.
Supervisor Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville, said the county’s contract with The Clearing was “a sham.”
Lawson said $1.3 million "in county tax dollars will be spent to give the five Democrats on the board cover for their unprecedented reversal of the 28-bypass vote,” Lawson said. “The contract reads more like damage control.”
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