Happy Trails: City lengthens trail... wire looms

When it comes to the Greenbelt Trail, the city's willing to go the distance. Less than a month after resurfacing the original trail from Riverside Park to Free Bridge, the city has extended the trail all the way to the VFW Post. And an expensive half-mile that last stretch is.

The $250,000 project, financed with a federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) grant, took over a month to complete, but it was in the works much longer– six years longer, to be exact.

"It took that long to get the grant money, get the plans, and get it out to bid," says Jim Tolbert, head of neighborhood planning.

Now, walkers, bikers, rollerbladers, and wheelchair users can enjoy smooth pavement all the way from Riverside Park to the VFW Lodge on River Road.

Not everyone has been pleased with the paving of the path, however.

"It wasn't my first choice," said Woolen Mills resident Peggy Van Yahres when the first section of the Greenbelt was resurfaced. "I liked it the old way," she said, referring to the original tar and gravel.

Former Mayor Kay Slaughter, a Woolen Mills resident who is now a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, also took a dim view of the paving– particularly the fact that it could "break up" when the Greenbelt floods.

Flood damage may not be the biggest danger. As this reporter witnessed on a recent visit to the new portion of the trail, a dog can easily slide down the steep bank, but coming back up is nearly impossible.

A black lab, excited by the prospect of an early morning swim, hurtled over the edge and found herself trapped for nearly 40 minutes while her owner, accompanied by two young children, desperately sought an escape route for the panicked pup.

The dog-in-river story had a happy ending, but Mike Svetz, head of the city's Parks and Recreation department, points out that the problem of cliff-diving dogs should not be an issue since there is an established leash law on that section of the trail.

For those who are obeying the laws of the trail, it can be a delight, says Woolen Mills resident Sarah Pool. Though she is blind, Pool says it's much easier to navigate now that it's paved. Her five-year-old son, Patrick, loves to ride his bike along the path, something she says would not be possible if it weren't paved.

While the new stretches of asphalt change the character of the Rivanna Trail, the slim, woodsy path that weaves around the City, Diana Foster, president of the Rivanna Trails Foundation, says her group isn't complaining.

"We recognize there is a need for a paved trail for the handicapped, for strollers and young bicyclists," says Foster, adding that the portion that's paved is in the "most appropriate place."

One person may not be rejoicing: Bland Circle resident Shirley Presley, who made news for piling brush across her thin strip of riverfront property to keep Rivanna Trail users from trespassing. The paved section now dumps people within a quarter to half a mile of her concertina coils.

When the brush failed to stop hikers in the summer of 2002, 30 feet of gleaming razor wire appeared a mere 18 inches off the ground at the edge of her property. That barrier seems to violate city code section 5-152 prohibiting the use of any type of barbed wire on residential property.

Though the Rivanna Trail now detours hikers away from Presley's property, there is nothing to prevent someone from continuing along the path to the barricade– recently also planted with small azalea bushes.

The concertina razors earned Presley a late August court date, for which this reporter– along with at least 12 city employees– has been subpoenaed as a witness.

Presley did not return the Hook's call.

The city, it seems, is hoping Presley will reconsider her position.

"We've got an adopted pedestrian bicycle plan that suggests [the paved trail] go all the way from Pen Park to Moore's Creek," says Tolbert. That would mean asphalt and dozens– perhaps hundreds– of trail users on Presley's property.

RTF's Foster acknowledges that a paved Greenbelt extension may be difficult to accomplish given the number of private properties– including Presley's and several in the Woolen Mills area– such a path would cross.

But even without such an uninterrupted stretch, Foster says there's plenty to be excited about: the stair access to the new trail from the north side of Free Bridge is an extra that wasn't in the city's original plan and makes crossing Rt. 250 safer for pedestrians.

"That," Foster says, "is an example of the city responding to people's requests." And Albemarle County, she says, has hopped on the trail bandwagon, paving its path on the east side of the Rivanna River into Darden Towe Park. There's even potential for a pedestrian bridge between Darden Towe and Pen Park, a massive project that Foster says would take the cooperation of "lots of different groups," but which would be "absolutely fantastic."

And in the final piece of Greenbelt news, Foster says the city is considering changing the name of the paved path to the Riverview Trail. If not that name, perhaps they'd consider Happy Trail? It's safe to say Roy and Dale and Trigger and Buttermilk would approve.

A new staircase provides access to the Greenbelt at Free Bridge.