Thursday, October 14, 2021
Sometimes, the best idea is to do nothing – or at least to think about it some more before going forward. And when it comes to the proposed John Mason Trail in Fairfax City, that’s what residents want. The proposed plan called for the removal of 400 trees.
Although the matter was taken off the agenda before City Council’s Sept. 14 meeting, several people called in anyway to voice their opposition. And at the Sept. 28 meeting – when Council was to consider whether to approve asking the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) to fund 70 percent of it – residents spoke up again.
As a result Council decided to table the project for now. “We need to pause it and continue talking with the community, now that we have more information,” said Councilmember Jon Stehle. “It’s an important trail, but now isn’t the time to submit a funding application.”
Agreeing, Councilmember Tom Ross said, “I bike, walk and love our trails, and we need to work hard to protect what we have. I believe we should have a trail system through that area, but we need to decide what kind. We need to involve the users and those who care deeply about the trees and environment.”
“Those historic trees deserve to live another 100 years untouched by people.”
The trail would circumvent the congested Main Street/Pickett Road intersection, but the steep terrain and dense forest – plus a 90-degree, grade difference between the two ends – pose challenges. After the Sept. 14 citizen outcry, the original plan – which would have removed 400 trees – was modified.
It’s now proposed to be done in phases and employ a 14-foot-wide, pier/boardwalk system with railing – requiring approximately 20 feet of clearing. It would also remove some 140 trees out of 500 within the east-west trail section. This first phase would connect the Daniels Run Trail and Pickett Road, near Fair City Mall. Phase one cost is $6 million, including $2 million for the boardwalk.
But residents haven’t changed their minds and still have the same concerns they did on Sept. 14.
“I’m flabbergasted that someone thought it smart to rid ourselves of hundreds of 100-year-old trees, when there are [many other] access points,” said resident Carol Ash. “It seems ridiculous.” Saying the trail will make it easier for cyclists to ride faster, she added, “No person there in a wheelchair will want to be anywhere near people riding 20 mph on a bicycle.”
Leslie Daniels stressed that for decades Fairfax City has been designated a “Tree City” by the Arbor Day Foundation. But between this trail and various development projects, she said, “Fairfax will lose that designation in the near future, since we’re losing so many trees here. I don’t see the need for this trail; there are two or three other alternatives for people on bikes and scooters. And this trail could take other routes.
“This is a healthy, living woodland – most of the trees are hardwoods in good condition. And when they’re cut down, the damage to the roots of the surrounding trees will allow invasive species in this forest. Your own Fairfax City 2014 Plan proposed this area to be an unpaved trail. Leave it alone and don’t harm what little remains of Fairfax City’s wooded area.”
Also calling in was a young boy named Billy Johnson, who put the matter into clear terms that made their point. “This trail is important and has wildlife habitat – and it’s my birthday,” he said. “Please do not cut the trees – I love trees.”
Ultimately, said Diana Burnham, whether 400 or 140 trees are removed, “Bulldozers and tractors will be storming through the woods, destroying the undergrowth and whatever life is under it. My whole Old Lee Hills neighborhood is opposed to this trail. And nobody’s going to bike up to Fair City Mall and take the trail down to Pickett. There are plenty of other bike trails they can use. You’ve gotten numerous emails opposing this proposal. And taxpayers would have to pay 30 percent of the cost – which, to me, is a pure waste of money.”
Katie Johnson implored Council to put the funding request on hold and “do all you can to preserve this special place. Those historic trees deserve to live another 100 years untouched by people. Consult with ecologists and an urban forester so we can do a good job. Our natural resources are too important to squander.”
Susie Crate, a City resident and GMU professor of Environmental Science and Policy, previously served on Fairfax’s Sustainability Committee. She said this plan “goes against everything the City needs to be doing in this day and age.”
Furthermore, said Crate, “This revised project purports to sacrifice less trees. But on closer analysis, it results in the same amount of trees taken. It’s simply divided this project into two pieces. Phase one is the area with less trees; the north-south section is more densely wooded and will be discussed and decided later. This new plan doesn’t talk about that area. But once you approve the funding for this entire project, you’ll also commit to taking those trees. So we ask you to defer your decision until you have complete information.”
Erin Frank said all that’s needed in the east-west portion is a boardwalk across the grassy hill beside the pond. And noting that plans also call for eventually extending this trail to downtown Main Street and Daniels Run, she said, “The 140 trees cut down would turn into 500. [Instead], let’s include that trail in our Fair City Mall Small Area Plan and give regional bicyclists a place for pit stops in our City.
“We could invite businesses like a bike shop, sandwich shop and juice bar. We’d bring customers to those businesses and not route them around them. I get that whatever NVTA funds we don’t get, another jurisdiction will – but that doesn’t make this trail a good idea. Bike lanes leading to our City center would be dynamic, and having real wilderness inside the boundaries would be something to brag about.”
“Trees make a unique contribution to our community,” added Judy Frasier. “A 14-foot-wide boardwalk would be “wider than a traffic lane of I-66. And the hearing-impaired would be surprised by bikes whizzing by them on it.”
After hearing residents’ concerns, Councilmember Joe Harmon said, “I don’t know if it makes sense to put a trail in this area. Maybe we could call this John Mason Park, instead.” Councilmember So Lim said she couldn’t support it, either.
“It would be wasteful to lose so many trees,” said Councilmember Sang Yi. “And I want residents to know, we heard you.”
Saying this project currently has “more questions than answers,” Councilmember Janice Miller moved to deny submitting the funding application, and her motion passed unanimously.