YORK COUNTY — After a year-and-a-half, Tammy Gweedo McGee is being told that she must remove a roadside memorial for her son.
After complaints from residents and local law enforcement, stating that the memorial poses a safety hazard, McGee was told by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) that she must remove it.
McGee’s son, Conner Guido, was one of three Tabb High School teenagers who died in a car accident on the way back from the school’s homecoming dance in October 2019.
The three friends were headed down Yorktown Road when the driver of the vehicle they occupied came to a curve less than a mile from the school and lost control. The car ran off the roadway and struck a tree, causing it to overturn onto its roof.
The tragedy hit the community hard, with friends and families visiting a roadside memorial placed at the site of the crash just a few months after it occurred.
At the memorial, flowers surround white crosses which were created by a local woodworker in honor of the teens.
However, now VDOT is requiring the memorial be removed.
After receiving a call from VDOT telling her that the memorial would need to be taken down due to a code violation, McGee was caught off guard.
“Had anyone told us in the last year-and-a-half that there was some code violation, we would have taken appropriate action before now,” McGee said. “But there had never been any communication.”
VDOT policy follows the Code of Virginia, which does not authorize the placement of private roadside memorials within a right of way for the safety of motorists as well as the individuals visiting and placing the items at the location.
Alternatively, VDOT offers a roadside memorial sign service that installs a personalized sign along a state-maintained highway.
Since the crash, VDOT has worked with McGee to install the approved memorial signage at the location, as well as curve delineators along the section of roadway.
However, VDOT Hampton Roads spokesperson Brittany McBride Nichols said that at that specific location, VDOT has received reports from citizens and local law enforcement of “an increase in unsafe visits and gatherings at the crash site, often after dark, and has involved pedestrians walking in the roadway.”
“Please keep in mind that a safety hazard can go beyond the item’s placement, especially along busy roads and interstates,” McBride Nichols said. “For instance, it would also be considered a safety hazard to stop on the side of the road to set up, visit or maintain the memorial, for those congregating at the location and for motorists passing at high speeds.”
McGee said that after living through a tragedy, she does not want anyone else to be in danger while visiting the site, but that she does not believe that removing the memorial will stop the teens’ friends from coming to the site.
“Moving the crosses is not going to solve the problem,” she said.
McGee said that she believes the county should work to make the road where the teens died safer in order to avoid history from repeating itself.
She also questions why VDOT is not enforcing the removal of other memorials in York County that are also in violation.
“It’s not fair for them to not enforce the rules consistently,” she said.
McBride Nichols said that while VDOT prohibits the placement of unauthorized memorials, if the memorial is not a safety hazard, if it is not opposed by adjacent property owners, is not an obstruction to any maintenance activities and is not deteriorating, the memorials are generally left alone.
“With that said, the Code of Virginia does prohibit these memorials and VDOT reserves the right to remove them at any time as necessary,” she said.
“Ultimately, while we are sensitive to the needs of those who desire to honor the memory of their loved ones, this policy was put in place to keep our roadways safer for everyone,” McBride Nichols added.
McGee said that had they known that the memorials were in violation of a legal code, they would have taken care of the issue long before now.
While McGee said that her family is complying with VDOT’s request, she believes that the memorial was not only a place of remembrance for the three teens, but a way to remind teenagers to practice safe driving.
“You can make me move his cross, but you’re not going to stop me from advocating for safe driving,” McGee said.