One of the conceptual trails would have been built along a powerline easement on the southeastern side of Huntley Meadows. (Fairfax County image)
Proposals to nix two long-planned but never constructed trails at Huntley Meadows park have drawn criticism from bicycle advocates and put local politicians at odds with each other.
The two trails have been part of the county’s comprehensive plan since the late 1970s, and if built they would substantially increase access to the park to hikers and bicyclists — particularly from neighborhoods bordering the southern and eastern sections of the park. But there has never been serious movement to build the trails, primarily because the Fairfax County Park Authority — which oversees Huntley Meadows — is adamantly against them. The Park Authority is concerned the trails would intrude on environmentally and culturally sensitive areas of the park, according to Lee District Supervisor Jeff McKay.
So in March, McKay and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors authorized county staff to look at the removals of the trails from the county’s plans. Aside from the Park Authority’s objections to the trails, McKay said removing the trails now through comprehensive plan amendment process will allow county staff to do an in-depth study of the sites, something that otherwise would not happen. Without the data from that study, McKay said, the county’s overall bicycle master plan could end up getting delayed by years — something he says would be a waste since there’s almost no chance the Huntley Meadows trails will ever be built in their current alignment.
“It’s very clear to me that the alignment that‘s shown on this map doesn’t work from the information I’ve gotten from the Park Authority,” McKay told the Fairfax Alliance for Better Bicycling (FABB) in October. “We want more [trails]. We want to do them in a smart way. We don’t want to do them in a way that’s in conflict with the county’s goals.”
But cycling enthusiasts and advocacy groups such as the FABB are concerned about removing the trails from the county’s plans. During the FABB’s mid-October meeting with McKay and Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck, leaders from the group said they were sympathetic to the Park Authority’s concerns but wondered why some sort of compromise can’t be reached rather than removing the two trails completely.
“It would be nice to see some alternatives,” FABB board member Bruce Wright said at the October meeting. “Our big concern is [the trails] come off and we have don’t have alternatives.”
FABB members said at the meeting that the county had given them little information about where specifically the trails would collide with ecological and culturally sensitive areas. They also pointed out that a gas line and power lines already run through sections of Huntley Meadows where parts of the trails are proposed, and that current cycling conditions near the park are less than optimal.
“There’s a community to the south of the park that really has no way to get into the park,” Wright said. “People want their trails. There’s really no trails in the south part of the park.”
Storck himself said at the meeting that he was also concerned about the removal of the trails before different alignments can be found.
“At this point I want to grapple with alternatives,” Storck said. “This clearly has problems with it … [but] why take this off until we know where we’re going.”
Another politician, State Sen. Scott Surovell, is critical of the plan for a variety of reasons. Surovell, whose 36th district includes much of the Richmond Highway area, says no serious analysis has been conducted to examine the benefits of improving cycling connectivity near the park, as well as overall public health benefits.
Surovell also said there are racial and environmental equity issues that need to be addressed before the trails are removed from the county’s plans. Those neighborhoods on the south and east side of Huntley Meadows, which are among the most diverse and economically disadvantaged in the county, currently have few bike-friendly transportation options, Surovell says. The communities also have no direct access to the park, despite living on its border.
“The sad thing is that these trails would benefit the most racially diverse lowest income part of Fairfax County w/the least access to parks, trails or fields,” Surovell said to McKay and others during a Twitter back-and-forth on Saturday. “[And] as usual those communities are not being informed or consulted [and] their needs are being ignored by their government.”
Where the trails would run
Huntley Meadows has a limited system of trails through the park currently. Cyclists are only permitted to use the 1.2-mile biking/hiking trail at the South Kings Highway entrance to Huntley Meadows. Bikes are not allowed on the boardwalk, and while bike lanes on Harrison Lane allow cyclists access to the park’s Lockheed Boulevard entrance, bikes are not allowed past the parking area.
One of the plan amendments put forth by McKay and the Board of Supervisors would remove a shared use path planned to run from the intersection of Telegraph Road and South Van Dorn Street through the northern edge of the park to Lockheed Boulevard (see below).
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Much of that trail would follow a gas pipeline right-of-way that goes through the park.
The other amendment would remove a longer trail that would run along the southern and eastern borders of the park. That paved trail would run between Hayfield Road in the west and end near the park entrance at Harrison Lane (see below).
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A large section of that proposed trail would run under an existing power line easement through the park. The county’s 1991 comprehensive plan recommended removal or relocation of the trail due to conflicts with ecological resources in the parks, according to a Fairfax County Department of Transportation presentation on the trails.
McKay also emphasized at the FABB meeting that the trails currently on the map are just “dots on a line from a lot of decades ago.” There’s a reason the trails have never been given serious consideration despite being on the map for 40 years, McKay said, and taking them off the map with through the comprehensive plan amendment process is the best way to finally move forward on a bike plan for that area.
“There are better alternatives that aren’t as intrusive in Park Authority property,” McKay said. “These lines are arbitrarily. … It’s time to start fresh, start anew.”
NOTE: County staff is due to deliver its report on the amendments to remove the trails this Thursday, and a public meeting on the amendments will be held Wednesday evening at 7 p.m. Groveton Elementary School. The planning commission is expected to hold its hearing the amendments on Jan. 9, with the Board of Supervisors holding its public hearing and vote on Jan. 22.