Huntley Meadows Park, teeming with life on a warm Saturday evening in July by Malcolm K. licensed under Creative Commons.

In Fairfax County, bike advocates and a state representative have teamed up to keep a pair of trails in Huntley Meadows Park from being removed—well, sort of. The kicker is that one of these trails has been on part of the county’s Comprehensive Plan since the 1970s and the other has been in the plan since 2014, but neither has ever been built. Now county planners want to remove them from the plan over concerns they could harm the park's sensitive environment.

The Fairfax County Planning Commission will meet on Wednesday, January 16 to discuss whether to remove the trails from the county’s Comprehensive Plan.

Huntley Meadows is Fairfax County’s largest county-run park, located in the Hybla Valley area south of Alexandria. It has a unique ecology that's unusual for being in such an urbanized area. It sprawls over more than 1,500 acres and is mostly wetland that has been carefully restored. Boardwalks give visitors an up-close look at the wetland’s plants and animals.

Blue Herons are among the animals found at Huntley Meadows park. Image by bobistraveling licensed under Creative Commons.

Gravelly paved trails wind through the woods, much of which is also preserved. There are also numerous informal trails and maintenance paths. Each year, more than 200,000 people visit Huntley Meadows, and its importance to the county highlights why the discussion over these two trails is so contentious.

The paths not taken

As I mentioned previously, neither of these trails exist. As seen in the graphic below detailing the two planned trails, the shared use path (2018-IV-BK1) would connect Telegraph Road to Harrison Lane.

Image by Fairfax County.

Because there is already an existing trail coming off Telegraph Road (see the second graphic) and an existing trail off Harrison Lane, the shared use path would connect the Northwestern and Northeastern sections of the trail inside the park. Currently, anyone using one section of the trail, whether it is the Northeastern portion or the Northwestern portion, cannot access the other from within the park.

Currently, the Northwestern trail system has 0.7 miles of trails and the Northeastern trail system has 1.7 miles of trails, not including any sections of road. The two proposed trails would add more than two miles of trails to the park.

This graphic shows the current trail system and bike paths, and also shows that the entrances to the park are from the Northwest and Northeast, and there are no entrances to the south to provide the neighborhoods south and southwest of the park with easier access. Adding the minor paved trail trail by Hayfield Road would grant closer access to the park.

The debate: better connectivity or habitat preservation?

County officials have previously recommended removing the minor paved trail, most recently in the 2017 version of the Comprehensive Plan. The county wrote a similar recommendation for the shared use path from Telegraph Road to Harrison Lane in a report written by the Department of Planning and Zoning released last month.

Though county planners recognized the benefits of the trails, especially in providing surrounding neighborhoods with easier access to the park and connecting the two portions, they also believed that the trails would damage the environment. The report cites various issues with building the minor paved trail by the Dogue Creek Stream Valley, and says that cutting into the woods would reduce habitat for important animal species.

County planners also concluded that if residents wanted to access the two sections of the trail, they could do so by using the sidewalks and roads outside the park.

Lee District Supervisor Jeff McKay (who recently announced he is running for head of the Board of Supervisors) supports removing the trails from the plan, and said previously that doing so allows the county to begin studying the park to assess alternatives. The Friends of Huntley Meadows Park, a nonprofit group dedicated to conservation, also supports removing the trails from the Comprehensive Plan.

In its fall 2018 newsletter, Cathy Ledec, President of the Friends of Huntley Meadows Park, wrote, “unfortunately, the construction of these paved bike trails within Huntley Meadows Park would severely damage nationally significant historic resources; eliminate vernal pools and other wetlands; harm rare plant and wildlife species and their associated habitats; and change the water flow regime, leading to greater flooding risks in adjacent communities.”

Currently, bicycles are banned from the boardwalks and some other areas of the park to protect the habitat. Image by Mr.TinDC licensed under Creative Commons.

Biking advocates like the Fairfax Alliance for Better Biking (FABB) say this conversation about removing trails does not include the input of various important stakeholders, like the Trails, Sidewalks and Bikeways Committee.

Alexis Glenn, a member of FABB, says the committee is due to meet in 2019 and could analyze Huntley Meadows’ current trails and make recommendations for alternatives to the planned trails, but that the trails should not be removed from the Comprehensive Plan without analyzing alternatives.

“From a planning perspective, what if these two trails are the best/safest options? Is it good governance to take the potentially least impactful and safest routes off the table before completing a holistic evaluation?” Glenn said.

State Senator Scott Surovell is also against removing the trails from the Comprehensive Plan. Last week, Surovell published a detailed blog post about the trails and the Department of Planning and Zoning report. He writes that “the proposed trail “alternatives” pose significantly greater risk to cyclists, simply propose that cyclists ride on designated roads and pedestrians walk on sidewalks, and involved significant elevation changes.”

FABB has also created a petition and State Senator Surovell has his own form where residents can give feedback about the trails and the planning report. The Planning Commission meeting on January 16 will be at Fairfax County’s Government Center building in Fairfax, and the Board of Supervisors will discuss the issue on January 22. Both meetings will be live-streamed on the county website.