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Talking Trails

Residents discuss trail and sidewalk projects.

As a Fairfax County pedestrian planner, Chris Wells has two goals — to get people walking, and to have them do it safely. At a recent Great Falls Citizens Association general session meeting on trails, Wells talked to residents about some of the obstacles to trail construction in Great Falls.

"Up in this part of the county, we do not have a lot going for us when it comes to sidewalk and trail construction," said Wells. "We really need community support, we really need homeowners to buy into the concept of walk-ability ... we have an obesity problem, we have a traffic problem — we want people to walk."

Many Great Falls residents have expressed a desire to see more trails and sidewalks in their community. In community surveys conducted over the last several months as part of the ongoing Great Falls 2020 Vision Project, the desire for a more walkable, pedestrian-friendly community was one of the issues mentioned most frequently by survey participants. Great Falls even has Great Falls Trailblazers — its own community organization dedicated solely to building new trails and connections to existing trails in the Great Falls area.

There are however, those residents who are opposed to incorporating sidewalks into the Great Falls community. These people often say they moved to Great Falls precisely because it is not the land of suburban subdivisions and sidewalks typically identified with Fairfax County.

At a Great Falls Citizens Association meeting last October, 14-year-resident Hong Lee said that the semi-rural character of Great Falls is what inspired him to move to the community in the first place.

"I don't want sidewalks in Great Falls," said Lee. "If you want to live in a place with sidewalks and no trees, then why come to Great Falls?"

Great Falls residents tend to make a distinction between sidewalks and trails, with many typically feeling more distaste for sidewalks. However, other residents have expressed frustration with the lack of safe pedestrian pathways in the Great Falls Village Center.

"You can't walk around this town," said Mike Kearney, owner of the Old Brogue, at a focus group session for local business owners. "You're driving from one center to the other, and you can't walk across Georgetown Pike."

ALTHOUGH MANY trail segments and potential trail locations abound in the Great Falls area, the primary mission of most trail proponents is to establish greater connectivity between random segments. However, the Commonwealth of Virginia's commitment to personal property owner rights, and the narrow, winding, two-lane country roads of Great Falls tend to make the acquisition of easements in Great Falls exceedingly difficult.

"If there's one property owner who says no, we can't do anything under Virginia law," said Wells. "Trails need to have logical starting and stopping points. It's a bigger issue than funding — if you have the money but don't have the land, there's nothing you can do."

Since Fairfax County will not invest money to build a trail that does not have a clear start point and end point, it only takes the refusal of one property owner to grant an easement to stop construction of a trail segment dead in its tracks. Some residents find this policy to be aggravating. Bill Canis has lived in Great Falls for 10 years and says that he believes it is this overly accommodating attitude toward personal property rights that will prevent him from ever seeing the day when he and his family can walk with ease and safety, to and from their Walker Road home and the Great Falls Village Center.

"It's a very frustrating policy because if I go to my neighbor and ask him to grant an easement, and then he goes and puts pressure on that other guy over there, eventually we might be able to get all the easements needed to make a complete trail," said Canis. "Do you know how frustrating it is that you can't walk to the Village Center — that my kids can't ride their bikes down there? I mean, it's crazy. [This] policy means that we'll never have trails."

Michael Keeler, co-chair of the Great Falls 2020 Vision Project committee, agrees that while a trail might initially start out with no clear start and end points, it still has the potential to eventually morph into a complete trail. Keeler inquired about the legality of private citizens and organizations purchasing individual, non-connecting easements with private funds.

"Then we might have three or four easements that lead to nowhere, but that puts pressure on the other surrounding landowners," said Keeler.

Wells said that while this strategy is not prohibited, he feels that it is an illogical one, given the limited amount of county funds available for a plethora of viable trail projects.

"It's common sense," said Wells. "Why would you as a taxpayer want to spend $1 million on a trail that goes nowhere?"

Wells added that a trail made up of easements purchased by private citizens would also have to be maintained by private citizens.

"There's a lot of real issues to consider with maintenance and liability," said Wells.

DESPITE THESE CHALLENGES, headway is being made on certain trails in Great Falls.

"We've raised almost $2 million in federal grants and private donations for the completion of trails mostly along Georgetown Pike and Walker Road," said Robin Rentsch, vice president of Great Falls Trailblazers.

In addition, Great Falls Trailblazers is focused on completing local segments of the Cross-County Trail which crosses into the W&OD Trail, and the Potomac Heritage Trail.

"We've got a lot of spines that we're hooking into, so that's a really exciting thing," said Rentsch.

At the Great Falls Citizens Association March 13 meeting on trails, Fairfax County Department of Public Works Planning and Design division staff member Randall Flowers, discussed upcoming trail projects in the Great Falls area. Flowers said that an application for a six-foot stone dust trail project in the vicinity of the Great Falls Volunteer Fire Department was recently submitted to the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) for approval.

"We got easements from all three property owners ... and we currently spend between nine to 12 months waiting for VDOT's approval," said Flowers. "So we're hoping we're approved this fall, and we'll start the bidding process and start constructing the trail in early winter of 2008."

In addition, Flowers said that the county plans to install a number of trail segments to link up several unconnected developer proffered trail segments near Utterback Store Road and Seneca Road.

Jenny Pate, trail planner for the Fairfax County Park Authority, discussed the Difficult Run stream valley portion of the Cross-County Trail, as it is the only segment of that trail which runs through Great Falls. A recent hydrology study showed that water in the Difficult Run stream valley flows in both directions along that portion of the trail, creating the need for a steel frame bridge to withstand flooding and provide a trail segment safe enough for regular pedestrian traffic.

"But right now we have no funding, so we're at zero, and we have to do a $60,000 archeological study to find where to put footers in for the bridge," said Pate.

Wells says that while there are limited funds and many trail and sidewalk projects that need to be completed, he remains optimistic about the future.

"We've really come a long way in the last five years," said Wells. "But the community support and availability of right-of-way is very important."