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Barbed Wire Battle

Fence blocking thru-traffic on Southdown trail in Great Falls upsets residents.

Everyday, Jonathan Fisher takes a 6-mile walk through the Great Falls Southdown section of the regional trail network that runs from Great Falls Park to Lorton. Several months ago, Fisher was dismayed to discover a barbed wire fence protruding directly into the trail pathway, making it impossible to pass through.

"There used to be this wonderful little circuit that would take me along the river," said Fisher. "It's just an extraordinary place, and in the spring you can see fields of bluebells, herons and woodpeckers, so to have access to that land is a great thing and a tremendous resource."

Fisher is not the only person to be upset by the blockage of the Southdown trail. Hundreds of walkers, runners, cyclists, equestrians and fishermen — many of whom have been using the trail for the last 40 years — were also stunned to find their route cut off with no way around. The Southdown section runs along the Potomac River on land that is owned by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority and the Nature Conservancy. It follows along a one-lane gravel passageway called Sewer Interceptor Road, that is owned by the Washington D.C. District Sewage Commission.

However, the trail also intersects with one parcel of private land that juts across the pathway like a finger. The owner of the property erected a barbed wire fence with "No Trespassing" signs.

"It's very annoying to me because this trail system is part of a huge regional park complex," said Fisher. "To have a major artery cut off is really a blow for the system of openness ... if you were talking about the Interstate Highway system, this would be equivalent to blocking an overpass on I-95."

IN RESPONSE to numerous complaints about the trail blockage, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority held a special public hearing on Thursday, Oct. 19. Residents of Great Falls packed into the tiny meeting room to express their grievances and offer suggestions for a solution to the problem.

Bill Brackett urged the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority to work with the Nature Conservancy to use easements as a means for going around the blocked area.

"I believe there is sentiment in Southdown and other places to help you financially, and we'd like to see some action," said Brackett.

Brackett added that going through the private property would be an alternative to going around.

"Use your condemnation card and use condemnation of an easement to go across the property," said Brackett. "It's a slam-dunk condemnation case."

However, other residents suggested strategies that would be less of an affront to personal property rights. Eleanor Weck, president of Great Falls Trailblazers suggested that the owner might be amenable to selling an easement.

"Buying an easement at fair market price seems to me to be the way to go," said Weck.

Jackie Taylor, president of the Great Falls Citizens Association, said that her organization would be more than willing to participate in fund-raising efforts for the purchase of any necessary easements.

"We have been collecting feedback for our 2020 Vision project and when we went around the room and asked people what they wanted and we heard 'trails, trails, trails,'" said Taylor.

Bill Niedringhaus, founder of Fairfax Trails and Streams and a member of the Potomac Heritage Trail Association, urged the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority to find a solution to the problem as quickly as possible as the fence is blocking "one of the best trails in the county."

"We are trying to get this section done, and there's a whole lot going on," said Niedringhaus. "This is one piece of the puzzle, but it's a gem in the crown."

Jonathan Fisher suggested that the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority look into the parameters set by prescriptive easements which dictate that the historical use of an access route across private property is protected for future use.

"Access is protected by the same laws as private property," said Fisher. "According to this doctrine, a passage that has been used as this one has for 20 years or more, is protected for future use, which would mean that [the property owner] has illegally seized a public thoroughfare."

PAUL GILBERT, executive director of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, said that he was pleased with the productive and communicative nature of the Southdown trail meeting. Gilbert said the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority plans to review the feedback and go to the Nature Conservancy to discuss possible options.

"There are numerous different ways as to how to get the trail around this property," said Gilbert. "We need to do a little research on the properties in that area to find out what currently exists in trail and access easements."

One possibility is to construct a raised wooden trail that would circumvent the fence and go across the neighboring wetlands. However, this may pose some threat to the health of the wetlands. Gilbert said that the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority has also been in constant communication with the property owner.

"He's been very pleasant in all our dealings and all of our communications have been very open and cordial," said Gilbert.

The Connection was unable to reach the property owner at press time.