When the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors made the decision to axe two long-planned trails through Huntley Meadows Park last February, they did so with a promise to explore alternatives that would increase bicycle and pedestrian accessibility without affecting the sensitive ecosystems inside the park itself. This is what led to last Wednesday’s meeting at the Gerry Hyland Government Center, which was billed as a “Community Workshop on Alternative Trail Connections Near Huntley Meadows Park.”
More than 50 participants filled a room on the second floor for the workshop, which was led by Chris Wells, transportation program manager for Fairfax County. Wells began by bringing everyone up to date on the trail issue and emphasizing that the main purpose of the workshop was to use the local knowledge of the citizenry to explore possible trail connections between the Route 1 and Telegraph Road corridors. This was the beginning of the process of redoing the Countywide Trails and Bicycle Master Plan scheduled to get underway in 2020 and taking 18-24 months.
Large-scale maps of the area around Huntley Meadows Park were set up on tables in the back of the room for participants to make notes and draw their suggestions on. This would prove to be more difficult than one might imagine, however, due to the fact that participants were told that the BoS mandated that any potential trail does not impact park property.
After allowing that there was room for interpretation in those instructions, Wells informed the audience that the Park Authority was taking this to mean there would be absolutely no trails allowed to enter Huntley Meadows property. Furthermore, the previously rejected trails were strictly off-limits, and there was no chance of crossing into Fort Belvoir property either.
This led to the maps being dominated by a giant, impassable black blob right in the middle with no physical way possible to cross the area dominated by Huntley Meadows and the adjoining Fort Belvoir.
Before any “mapping workshop” could take place, however, the floor was opened up for some Q&A. This time was fairly dominated by residents of the neighborhoods south of Huntley Meadows, who felt like they have been ignored throughout this process. Indeed, one of the issues that has thus far failed to be addressed is the lack of any entrance to the park on the south side.
“I’m just glad to see so many people here because in the first process of eliminating the trails it was apparent that the southern neighborhoods were not invited,” Greg Crider, of Williamsburg Manor, stated. “The cards were stacked against southern neighborhoods but it would be nice to see a southern entrance [to the park].”
Will Parks, of Pinewood Lake, echoed that sentiment.
“On our side of the park we have one step ahead of nothing in the way of recreation,” Parks said.
Many of those in attendance were hoping for more clarification as to the reason why the previously planned trail routes, particularly the southern one that follows a Dominion Energy utility corridor, ended up being eliminated from consideration.
Brian Palazzolo, also of Pinewood Lake, was among several attendees of the opinion that a bike/pedestrian path could not possibly do more harm than Dominion does.
“Dominion tears [the utility path] to pieces every year, but we can’t use it for a path?” Palazzolo said. “It would be nice to have a trail along the southern periphery.”
Several other attendees also remarked on the fact that there are many “unofficial trails” crisscrossing Huntley Meadows Park that could or should be made official and improved upon for the sake of access.
“I enjoy walking in the park, but it’s difficult even over short distances now.” Brian Crowe, of Woodstone, said, “As a cyclist, I’m always hoping for calmer traffic areas to get where I’m going.”
However, it wasn’t all pro-trail folk at the workshop. The Friends of Huntley Meadows Park (FOHMP) sent a delegation to continue their defense of the fragile ecosystem they say the park represents.
“It’s the wrong place for a commuting corridor,” FOHMP member George Ledec flatly stated.
Chris Wells also reiterated in the Q&A that Huntley Meadows’ ecosystem is sensitive throughout the park, not just in the center where most visitors think of. He also pointed out that Huntley Meadows Park is award-winning, and could be considered the “crown jewel of the Fairfax County Parks System. It is full of very rare plants and biodiversity, with many sections being wet all year round.”
Cathy Ledec, president of the FOHMP, recalled the battle against a proposed road through Huntley Meadows, which ended in 1990 when the United Stated Department of the Interior denied Fairfax County’s nearly 15-year quest to build a four-lane road connecting Lockheed Boulevard to Van Dorn Street.
“The Department of the Interior had to approve the plan but rejected it citing the environmental and property damage that would occur,” Ledec said.
Other concerns mentioned if trails were to be built included such things as abandoned e-bikes and scooters, invasive species, and the dangers of unexploded ordnance in the southern part of the park left over from time as part of Fort Belvoir.
After the lengthy Q&A session concluded, participants were invited to the back of the room to the half dozen maps set up on tables to leave notes and drawings. Many separated into groups based on their previously held convictions regarding park trails, but there wasn’t much that could be accomplished given the strict “no impact” mandate given by the BoS.
One thing was clear though, and that was everyone in attendance on Wednesday night wanted what they felt was best for their neighborhood and the people of Fairfax County. In that spirit of camaraderie perhaps a solution to this seemingly intractable issue will be found.
Mike O’Neill is a freelance writer and three time cancer survivor who lives in the Kingstowne section of Lee District.