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Trailblazing

County seeks to modify trails plan map to create connecting paths.

<bt>Dr. James H. Fahs doesn’t do as much biking as he’d like. Still, in good weather, the Fairfax man rides several times a week, with each trip running 25 to 30 miles.

“Most of the riding I do is on the W&OD [Washington & Old Dominion Trail],” said Fahs. “That’s only about 2 1/2 to 3 miles away. That’s my primary route for exercise.”

Fahs also takes advantage of the sidewalks, bike lanes and trails near his home to run errands or go shopping.

“I have been using the Accotink Trail,” said Fahs. “My wife and I use that for a nice ride. When I had to make appointments down on Woodburn Road, I could go down that way or I took that to Fairfax Hospital to visit someone one time.”

Fahs expressed his enthusiasm for biking and Fairfax County’s extensive trail system during a Jan. 16 public hearing of the Planning Commission. He was one of the 33 speakers who signed up to comment on a proposed out-of-turn amendment to the county’s comprehensive plan that would modify the Countywide Trails Map.

“These trails give more opportunities for citizens of Fairfax County,” said Fahs. “The revision of marked areas and safer routes gives people more opportunity to use a bicycle in lieu of a car in some of their daily work.”

<mh>Originated in 1976

<bt>Fairfax adopted the Countywide Trails Map in 1976, which detailed what trails existed for residents to use. During the 1990 update to the Planning Horizons Plan, a trail classification system was added to the map designating which trails were for pedestrian bicycle or equestrian use. Since then, the Countywide Trails Map has remained largely unchanged.

In May 1999, the Board of Supervisors gave the go ahead for the Countywide Non-motorized Transportation Committee (CNTC) to revise the Countywide Trails Map so that it reflected the current state of the county’s trail system. Nearly three years later, the committee presented its plan to the Planning Commission.

The committee’s proposal modifies the Trails Plan Map with classifications and suggested improvements for each trail segment. The proposal also divides the trails into eight categories: on-road bike routes, major regional trail system, major paved trails, minor paved trail, minor paved trail with parallel natural surface or stone dust trail, natural surface or stone dust trail, stream valley trail, and trails in other jurisdictions.

“What we wanted to do was provide an accurate planning document for the county so that when proposals come forth, the trail is constructed in the right place and meets the needs of potential users in the county,” said committee chairperson Ann Bennett.

“Primarily, it’s in stream valleys and along major secondary roads,” said Bennett. “It’s sidewalks, asphalt trails, equestrian trails. It’s just about any pathway in the revitalization districts. It’s the gamut.”

<mh>Updating the Plan

<bt>“Essentially, [the proposal] updates a plan that is fundamentally almost 25 years old,” said Frank de la Fe, planning commissioner for the Hunter Mill District. “It does some things that seem like countywide issues. Putting things in the plan like on-road bike routes and things like that which have never been there before and new major trails like the cross-county trail.”

According to de la Fe, the most significant change introduced by the proposed amendment is the re-designation of the trails. “By changing the designation of the trails, you’re describing the type of trail rather than the users,” he said. “All of these trails are really multi-user trails. Just because it’s designated for equestrian doesn’t mean that people can’t walk on it.”

Over the years, Fairfax County’s trail system has grown bit-by-bit through requirements placed on developers, as part of road improvement projects, or through the use of county funds. One of the major problems addressed by the amendment is how to connect all of those trail segments.

“Most of the changes are to connect trails that are on the existing plan map to other plan trails where there is a gap,” said Bruce Wright, the Hunter Mill district’s representative to the CNTC.

“What we’re trying to get is to put those connections in so that people can get from one place or another without having to walk in the mud, the street, or anything that’s not as safe as a trail would be,” said Joan M. DuBois, the Providence planning commissioner.

<mh>Adding New Trails

<bt>During the public hearing, former Board of Zoning member James Hart raised another issue relating to the trail planning process: the tendency of some developers to escrow money for future trails rather than add trails at the time of development.

“We have 163 useless escrows,” said Hart. “Our dirty little secret is that we’ve never been able to move forward on a trails and walkway project that was escrowed. All of the 163 escrows, they were done with good intentions. Developers and attorneys will stand here and tell you that [a trail] doesn’t connect to anything. It doesn’t go anywhere. We ought to do it later when something else is happening. We’ll do an escrow and we can do it all at once. That doesn’t work for a number of reasons.”

According to Hart, it makes more economic sense to have a developer build a trail segment during the original site construction rather than add it later. “It’s much cheaper to put the trail in when there’s grading onsite, the engineers are staking things out and there’re people there,” Hart said. “It’s much more difficult coming years later with wheelbarrows instead of bobcats, ordering small quantities of materials, and delicately working around tot-lots and things. It would be much better to have the useless [trails], if that’s what they are, go in during the mobilization onsite.”

Bruce Wright, the Hunter Mill district representative to the CNTC, agreed that developers should be encouraged to build new trails even if they didn’t connect to anything at that time.

“That’s the only way to get trails built, piece-by-piece,” Wright said. “The county really doesn’t have adequate funds. This year, there was zero new funding for trails. We rely on developers and the department of transportation to build them.”

Wright pointed out that the committee’s proposal included on-road bike routes that were critical to connecting existing trail segments throughout the county.

“In the Hunter Mill district, we’re really lucky because we have the W&OD Trail that goes east-west and we have the Fairfax County Parkway Trail that goes north-south,” Wright said. “But, between the Fairfax County Parkway Trail and any other north-south connections there’s very little between there and points east.”

Although Hart expressed concerns about developers escrowing money for trails rather than building trails, he had nothing but praise for the proposed amendment put forward by the CNTC.

“I wasn’t sure that they were ever going to get through with any review of Fairfax County,” said Hart. “If you look at the lines on the map, about three years of work went into the mapping, the inventory, and deciding what’s going where. That work product is absolutely terrific and the citizens are going to benefit from it.”

Prior to the Jan. 16 public hearing, the Planning Commission agreed to defer a final decision on the out-of-turn trails amendment until its Feb. 20 meeting. Citizens would be able to able to submit amendments or comments to the Planning Commission by Feb. 6. The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the trails amendment at its March 4 meeting.