Anatomy of a Trails Controversy

Anatomy of a Trails Controversy

For nearly two years, the Fairfax County Non-Motorized Transportation Committee has been working on an amendment to the countywide trails plan.

Categorizing trails based on their construction material, rather than usage, the amendment goes before the county Planning Commission, next Wednesday, Feb. 20, for decision.

But a resolution made by Del. James K. "Jay" O'Brien (R-40th) and passed Saturday by the House has trail proponents wondering if it will adversely affect the amendment. It's also again ignited a controversy that's been simmering for years between residents of the Sully and Springfield districts.

"I'm disappointed that he didn't consult more of his constituents before making that resolution," said Virginia Run's Deb Leser, Sully District's representative on the countywide trails committee. "I plan to contact him and let him know that, as his constituent, I don't agree with this statement of his."

Initially, the document resolved that the General Assembly would oppose any attempts to subject the Occoquan Watershed to local regulation that "may require or permit the building of public trails that are not in harmony with the purpose for which the ... Watershed was originally created."

After constituents raised a fuss, O'Brien deleted the part about trails so that sentence only dealt with nonharmonious regulations there, in general. But it still contained a line stating that "paved trails and bicycle lanes are not in conformance with plans to protect land in an area where previously undisturbed surfaces are often disrupted by pavement."

In 1999 and again in 2001, the Springfield District tried to have several proposed bike and horse trails removed from its portion of the county's trails plan, but the county trails committee voted not to delete them.

Then on Feb. 6, members of the Fairfax Station-based Occoquan Watershed Coalition (OWC) wrote to the Planning Commission, explaining the unique quality of RC (rural conservation) land in that district and asking that some 22 bike, horse and stream-valley trails be excised from the county's trail-building plan.

"The trails placed on the trails map in the late 1970s were done so with the expectation that the rural Clifton/Fairfax Station area would be developed into urban areas much like Burke and Annandale were developed," said OWC vice-president Bill Cole. "But when in 1982 the [county Board of] Supervisors decided to downzone the area to protect the water supply and keep lots 5 acres, someone should have looked at the plan again and brought it into concert with what was actually approved."

"The issue of trails was simply an oversight," said OWC president Al Akers. "This is horse country out here."

The 1/4- to 1/2-acre lots originally envisioned there — with developers putting in the trails — never came to pass. Furthermore, said Cole, "If you put paved bicycle trails alongside the roads here, you're adding a lot of impervious surface to that area. And it's all privately owned now, so Fairfax County no longer has this land [on which to build trails]. It would have to either buy it or condemn it and pay for the trails' construction and upkeep."

What's reasonable, as far as the Springfield District is concerned, he said, is that these "outdated pedestrian, bike and horse trails be erased from these plans because there's little likelihood they'll ever be built." The OWC isn't recommending that any trails on public land be deleted, and he noted that developers in his area have already put in a network of private horse and pedestrian trails, made of mulch, dirt and leaves, for the local homeowners — many of whom gave easements for their construction and are now responsible for their upkeep.

Cole said that, in his Fairfax Station community called Shadowalk, and in four other nearby communities, there are 35 miles of trails with reciprocal use for residents. Indeed, this pattern exists in many Clifton/Fairfax Station areas, resulting in more than 200 miles of trails for residents there.

Calling it a "local jurisdiction priority," he said he has no objection to Sully building its trails. As for Springfield, though, said Cole, "This district is different from any place in the county because it's a designated RC area. It's kind of the rural Central Park of Fairfax County."

O'Brien, too, noted that that district supports his resolution because of its protection of privacy rights, but acknowledges that, in Sully, trails are desired. "And if the homeowners want that, of course, that is not a problem with the resolution," he said. "[It] only speaks to respecting property rights for those people who do not want the trails."

However, many Sully residents do see O'Brien's resolution as a potential problem and are adamantly opposed to it. "The Sully District Council of Citizens Associations Land-Use and Transportation Committee wanted him to limit his resolution to just the Clifton/Fairfax Station area and remove Sully from it," said committee member Jim Hart. "It's still an enormous controversy with the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors."

He said the committee voted unanimously, Feb. 4, to ask O'Brien to delete Sully's portion of the RC-downzoned area from the document. The group also reaffirmed its support of the proposed countywide trails amendment and its implementation in Sully.

"We want the trails built," said Hart. "If you don't have bike trails, you have to drive everywhere. We want to connect the communities and parkland and provide alternatives to automobile transportation."

Noting that trails have been on the county's Comprehensive Plan for 25 years, he said, "It's not as if we advocate policies threatening the Watershed. We strongly support trail construction and funding."

Leser noted that paved trails are already being used in Sully and are "working out fine. And in many areas, the Park Authority prefers paved trails because they give off less wash and are easier to maintain. Stone dust, mulch and gravel can wash into the streams and have done so in the Little Rocky Run stream valley."

On the same committee as Hart, Carol Hawn said, "We in Sully worked very hard for trails and believe they're an amenity. Many of us throughout Sully often walk our stream valleys." Besides, she said, "The OWC doesn't speak for us. What may be land privately owned [in Clifton/Fairfax Station] today may not be, 20-30 years down the road, so I think it's shortsighted and myopic to remove their trails from the plan."

Once eliminated, said Hawn, there'll never be an opportunity to put them back on the Comprehensive Plan. "We can't say the land use of today will be the land use of tomorrow," she said. "I've learned that, over the years."

Regarding recreation, she said trails give people a chance to walk their dogs, get some exercise, see wildlife such as deer or simply relax and enjoy nature, alone or as a family — complete with bikes and strollers. She also disagrees with those who believe that trails introduce crime. Said Hawn: "If people are thinking of doing something devious, there are more direct ways of doing it than walking along stream-valley trails."

Walter Brodtman of Springfield is the Washington Area Bicycle Association's representative on the county trails committee, and nearly 3,000 of his group's members live in Northern Virginia. He, too, opposes O'Brien's resolution and views it as an unsuccessful attempt to disguise NIMBYism "in environmental clothes."

"I think human-friendly infrastructure, like trails and bikeways, is always appropriate for people to use — downzoned or not," he said. "In fact, they're environmentally friendly because they don't use fossil fuels or cars or pollute the air. Long, skinny, asphalt trails add to impervious surface, but not to the runoff, because the runoff can go right off the 6-foot-wide surface and into the ground next to it."

Noting that three major, regional parks — Fountainhead, Bull Run Marina and Hemlock Overlook — are in the Springfield District, Brodtman said visitors should be able to access them by bicycle. And he said county residents, themselves, submitted recommendations to the county saying that on-road bike routes should be placed in that area to get to the three parks.

"And that could be done without adding more pavement — just signs directing people to the parks and also alerting drivers that bicyclists are there," said Brodtman. "Bicyclists would use these routes just like cars do."

County trails committee chairman Ann Bennett said the trails amendment doesn't add paved trails anywhere in the Springfield RC area and 75 percent of those already planned for there would be natural material. The other 25 percent would be asphalt adjacent to a natural surface to accommodate horses, bicyclists, walkers and Rollerbladers.

"We want the Springfield RC trails to remain both for local and countywide use," she said. 'If you remove an entire portion of the county, it's difficult to connect to other jurisdictions, and it mandates that people are in cars."

If the Springfield District prevails, said Bennett, only those lucky enough to have private trails will get to enjoy them, but not the public: "Our job is to try to balance all the needs in the county."