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2016-05-18 / News

Cracks in the foundation

Around since the early ’90s, Bob Olsen is the watchdog who doesn’t quit
By Jim McConnell
STAFF WRITER


Bob Olsen’s watchdog days started in earnest during the shrink-swell soil controversy of the early 1990s. 
Ash Daniel/Chesterfield Observer Bob Olsen’s watchdog days started in earnest during the shrink-swell soil controversy of the early 1990s. Ash Daniel/Chesterfield Observer Shrink-swell soil put Bob Olsen on the map.

It was 1991, and Olsen was working on Ed Barber’s campaign for Midlothian’s seat on the Board of Supervisors.

Hundreds of Chesterfield residents were asking the local government to help them deal with cracks in their homes’ foundations – damage that initially was blamed on the regular expansion and contraction of clay-based soil – and it became a major issue in the November election.

One day, Barber called Olsen and said he was going to visit some of the affected properties with fellow candidates Art Warren and Jack McHale.

That’s how Olsen found himself exploring crawl spaces under several homes in Woodlake and Brandermill, pointing out construction errors that he claimed should have been discovered by county building inspectors prior to the homes being declared fit for occupancy.

Barber won his race and became one of four new supervisors in January 1992. He subsequently appointed Olsen to the county’s Commission on Soils and Foundations, which made recommendations to the board about creating an assistance program for affected homeowners, raising standards for foundation construction, and putting teeth in the home inspection process.

“My butting heads with the county goes way back,” Olsen acknowledges with a laugh.

Olsen, an Illinois native, served as a heavy equipment operator in the U.S. Army from 1970 to 1973.

After being discharged, settling in the Richmond area and getting married, Olsen worked as a crane operator; among other projects, he helped build the Downtown Expressway and widen Interstate 95 from four to six lanes in the city, he says. He also took night classes at VCU, earning a degree in business administration in 1984.

“Bob is a very smart man,” says his wife of nearly 42 years, Diane, a retired Chesterfield elementary school teacher. “He’s stubborn – a ‘good’ kind of stubborn, I say. He loves to do research. He gets in-depth about things that interest him.”

Like fellow citizen watchdog Brenda Stewart, Olsen takes pains to speak publicly on issues of local importance only after he has armed himself with reams of supporting documents.

Unlike most watchdogs, Olsen also has been part of the county government apparatus.

In addition to his work on shrink-swell soil, Olsen served as chairman of the county’s Board of Building Code Appeals from 1993 to 2005, establishing a reputation as a stickler for the rules who didn’t mind the occasional verbal fisticuffs with staff.

“When you’re inside the system, you find out where it’s rotten,” Olsen says. “There are a lot of very good people who work for the county government, but since the ’70s, it has basically been run by developers.”

Olsen takes pride in serving as a thorn in the side of developers attempting to convince the Board of Supervisors to reduce or eliminate cash proffers on their residential projects.

He has clashed most notably with Chester developer George Emerson, claiming on several occasions that Emerson was trying to fatten his wallet at the expense of county taxpayers.

When Olsen learned in 2013 that a friend was one of five people appointed to a citizen committee tasked with studying the county’s cash proffer policy, he didn’t pull any punches.

“He told me, ‘I like you, but I’m going to treat you the same as anyone else,’” recalls Bill Woodfin, chuckling at the memory. “I said, ‘Fair enough, Bob.’”

Olsen and Woodfin had gotten to know each other better earlier that year, when both fought a local businessman’s plans to build a construction demolition debris landfill near Grange Hall Elementary in the western Route 360 corridor.

In the face of vehement community opposition, Bill Stinson withdrew his request for a zoning amendment that would have allowed his landfill to take in both coal ash and automotive shredder residue.

Buoyed by that victory, Olsen met with members of Hands Across the Lake, a local environmental group that had also protested Stinson’s landfill plan.

At that time, Hands Across the Lake was strictly focused on issues affecting the Swift Creek Reservoir. Olsen suggested to its leadership that the group could have a more significant impact if it got involved in water-quality issues across the county.

Three years later, Olsen and Hands Across the Lake are part of a citizen-driven effort to determine whether coal ash generated at Dominion Virginia Power’s Chesterfield plant has contaminated groundwater nearby.

“Bob adds a different dimension because he’s one heck of a researcher,” says Hands Across the Lake member Peter Martin, who first met Olsen many years ago when Olsen served as assistant scoutmaster for Martin’s son’s Boy Scout troop.

Olsen still talks proudly of his time in scouting and notes that his son attained the rank of Eagle. But he is most proud of his and Diane’s family – three grown children and seven grandchildren, most of whom live in Chesterfield.

“Everything I have done has been for the betterment of the county,” he says. “I have a vested interest in making sure Chesterfield is a good place to live.”

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