Two planned, but never constructed, trails at Huntley Meadows are officially off the county’s maps as of Tuesday, when the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to approve two new comprehensive plan amendments.
The amendments, which received a thumbs-up from the Fairfax County Planning Commission last month, nixed long-planned trails that would have allowed for bicycle usage on a minor paved trail that ran from Hayfield Road in the west around the southern and eastern edges of the park to Lockheed Boulevard, as well as a shared use path that connected Lockheed Boulevard with Telegraph Road.
The board also unanimously approved a follow-on motion that directed the county to immediately begin looking at alternatives that would increase bicycle accessibility in that area without affecting the park.
“I know we can find better connectivity solutions in that area,” said Lee District Supervisor Jeff McKay. “I know that we can promote bicycling as an alternative commuting pattern and at the same time protect Huntley Meadows Park for generations to come.”
The unanimous vote capped months of sometimes contentious debate between supporters of the amendments to remove the planned trails and opponents, who opposed removing the trails before alternatives had been identified. Community members on each side of the issue testified at public hearings, wrote letters and pushed online petitions advocating for their cause.
The debate even divided area politicians from the same party, which State Sen. Scott Surovell being an outspoken opponent of removing the trails from the maps. On the other side, both State Del. Mark Sickles and Del. Paul Krizek each wrote letters of support for the plan to remove the trails.
McKay said the amendments made the process more open to public input, and allowed more research about the park’s ecology and terrain to be done. McKay also said criticism about the amendments because they were not done during the normal comprehensive plan cycle was misguided.
“I can’t remember an application in Lee District that’s had more involvement at least in the last 10 years than this one,” McKay said. “I think the remarkable amount of citizen involvement in this is something we should proud of.”
The two planned trails dated back to the 1970s but had never been funded. They faced long-term opposition from the Friends of Huntley Meadows Park and other environmental groups, who said the trails would negatively impact the wetlands and wildlife at the park. A number of members of the Friends of Huntley Meadows Park testified at the Board of Supervisors hearing, with many saying they supported bicycling — just not in the park.
“Huntley Meadows Park is the crown jewel in Fairfax County’s park system,” Cathy Ledec, president of the Friends of Huntley Meadows Park testified at the hearing. “It is too valuable as a protected natural area to be sacrificed for cut-through transportation corridors. “
Bicycle advocates, including the Fairfax Alliance For Better Biking, felt alternatives to the planned trails needed to be researched prior than their removal from the map. Some argued that modified versions of the planned trails could provide better access to Huntley Meadows for those not using cars, particularly in the low-income neighborhoods to the east and south of the park.
Stiven Foster, a member of the Fairfax County Trails, Sidewalks and Bikeways Committee and FABB volunteer, testified in favor of keeping the trails on the maps. Foster said that because an environmental analysis or assessment had not been performed, it was speculative to say what kind of impact that trails would truly have.
“I appreciate the environmental activism,” said Foster, who works as an environmental scientist. “I think a lot of what’s been put forward is simply not based on fact.”
Foster also pushed back against the view of the trails as a “transportation corridor,” similar to the road once proposed through the northern end of Huntley Meadows in the 1970s.
“But I think it would be a fallacy to compare the bikeways to that sort of massive infrastructure,” Foster said. “It is very possible to build bikeways and trails through rare ecosystems. It’s done across the commonwealth.”
Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck also had reservations about the removal of the trails without looking closer at alternatives first, and said at Tuesday’s hearing that although he supported the removal of the trails from the maps, he was not a fan of how it was done.
“There’s absolutely no doubt the original plan was flawed,” Storck said, who said that more study was needed to see if there were spots at the edge of the park were non-intrusive enough for cycling. “My challenge with this issue has always been the process.”
Huntley Meadows does currently have a limited system of trails in the park, including its popular boardwalk area. 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 past the parking area off of the Lockheed Boulevard/Harrison Lane entrance.
Bicycle and pedestrian access to the park from neighborhoods east and south of the park is considered less than ideal, and McKay said there would be challenges with
“[L]et’s begin looking now at alternatives, because we do have some disconnected areas of bicycle network in this area,” McKay said. “It’s difficult when you have a protected area as large as Huntley Meadows is to plan for connectivity around.”
This story had been updated to correct the types of paths described in the second paragraph.