“To enhance the quality of life for all through the stewardship of public
land and parks and to provide quality recreational experiences.”
~ Charlottesville Parks and Recreation Mission Statement (emphasis added)
Case for Multiuse Trails throughout Ragged Mountain Park
As the above mission statement says, Charlottesville parks are for use by all citizens. Excluding the use of bicycles on trails at Ragged Mountain excludes a good portion of Charlottesville citizens for the benefit of a small minority at the expense of the park itself.
Investing in bicycle infrastructure such as bicycle networks and destinations like Ragged Mountain are good for the local economy. Providing for destinations and access increases livability. Increased livability leads to increased tax revenues. People riding bicycles are not driving cars and creating pollution. Providing active transportation and recreation like bicycling for citizens decreases health care costs by making people healthier. This is especially important in this era of the obesity epidemic and increasing disease caused from pollution.
Economic benefits of trails:
Economic benefits of bicycle infrastructure:
If we can attract new citizens who wish to be car-free and convince more citizens to give up their cars or dramatically reduce their use, we can save wear and tear on our roads and eliminate the need for larger volume road projects:
Providing Quality Recreation for More Citizens
At the Charlottesville Planning Commission discussion of Ragged Mountain on Nov. 9th, 2016, Commissioners Kurt Keesecher and Lisa Green made the point that the city is actively working to increase density. There is an ever increasing need for more recreational space for more activities for more people. There are minimal options for bicycle destinations that do not involve cycling on poor roads (like Plank Road, Lynchburg Road and Ivy Road) or by car. Ragged Mountain is the only city park that had the potential for a quality cycling experience that is easily reachable from town by bicycle.
Opponents of shared use trails at Ragged Mountain cite the miles of mountain bike trails at other public land in the region. As the parent of a mountain bike team member here in town, I assure you that we must load up all the kids in motor vehicles and drive upwards of 40 minutes every week to get to these referenced trails. Groups like the Boys and Girls Club cycling team must deal with the same transportation issues. With limited time and resources, the possibilities for cyclists drop dramatically. People wishing to take a quick lunchtime or evening ride have extremely limited options.
The only in-town options are the Rivanna Trail and O Hill which rely on the benevolence of private owners and the University of Virginia. The Rivanna Trail’s woes are well documented and UVa’s risk management approval of allowing mountain bikes at O Hill is tenuous at best
Building Trails and Community
One of the main arguments of the multiuse opponents is that riding bicycles on trails damages them and causes water quality issues. It is true that riding on poorly designed trails, especially after significant rain, can cause trail damage. Inadequacy designed trails will erode without any use. This is clearly evident at Ivy Creek and Ragged Mountain where no bikes have been on the trails. Yet, extensive erosion of trails exists. The best way to combat trail damage and erosion is to (re)design and (re)build quality trails using techniques championed by the International Mountain Bike Club (IMBC) to avoid water runoff damage.
Who has the best trail building knowledge and skills in the Charlottesville area? The Charlottesville Area Mountain Bike Club (CAMBC) does. CAMBC members have taken the time and expense to become certified trail builders through the IMBC. CAMBC actively works with groups like the Charlottesville Trail Runners, the Rivanna Trail Foundation and area parks departments to design, build, reconfigure and maintain trails in many locations in the area. Are these people motivated by having more mountain bike trails? Yes. Do they intend exclusive use of these trails? Absolutely not.
So by excluding the use of bicycles, a major beneficial community is excluded from Ragged Mountain. I see no reason why CAMBC would put resources into a park which its members cannot use. I would also point out that the only trail work at Ragged Mountain since the dam project completion was done by CAMBC members.
The proponents of multiuse trails at Ragged Mountain are in favor of ALL citizens using the trails including people with disabilities. We are not proposing exclusive use and wish to engage all trail users to create the best trail system possible. CAMBC members have suggested hiking-only trails as part of the Ragged Mountain trail system. We are an inclusive bunch. Excluding the best trail builders from using Ragged Mountain will negatively affect the experience for all at the park.
Argument for a Full Multiuse System
Understanding that the two Parks and Recreation Advisory Board votes to exclude bicycles from areas on either side of the pontoon bridge were well intentioned, they were misguided and will have unintended and lasting negative consequences on other trail users.
The trip around the Ragged Mountain Reservoir is a conservatively estimated (using a general line loop) 7 miles. That would take hours to circumnavigate on foot. From the parking lot, it can easily take more than two hours to reach the pontoon bridge traveling in a counterclockwise direction and over an hour across the dam in the clockwise direction. That means that regardless of use, very few hikers will visit the SW side of the reservoir and would be the largest draw for cyclists. Yet, this is exactly where the parks board voted to exclude bicycles and force all the cycling activity into the area with highest concentration of other trail users.
The argument that we must keep cyclists out of the SE area of the park (area between dam and pontoon bridge) because of the terrain assumes that the topography is indeed too steep. The issue was raised by a board member who was admittedly not a cyclist, much less a mountain biker. She was reacting to a specific small section of the trail over a steep incline that is poorly designed.
A majority of the existing trail in the SE area is on tame terrain with many sections close to being flat. The problematic section of trail is a concern for the trail experts as well. This section of trail needs to be redesigned to limit erosion and create a better experience for users by creating switchbacks that dramatically reduce slope and water erosion. There is no reason this redesign cannot easily accommodate mountain bikes as well.
The argument for banning cyclists from the SW corner of the park is based on a letter from a vegetation ecologist from Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation Division on Natural Heritage, Gary Fleming. Mr. Fleming recommends a buffer of 250 meters around an area identified in the Ragged Mountain Natural Area 2016 ECOSYSTEM SURVEY report as containing a plant listed as threatened under the Commonwealth of Virginia Endangered Plant and Insect Act. According to Mr. Fleming, there should be no trails in this buffered area. Not hiking-only trails; no trails. Why would the parks board then vote to only ban bicycles there? The board had no discussion of how a hiking trail would be any less damaging that a multiuse one.
Not only that, Mr. Fleming’s recommendation is based on some dubious references. His letter references three studies that were monitoring major disturbance of large portions of forest canopy either by building logging roads or clear cutting forests. These disturbances give invasive species much needed sunlight to get established. The building of foot and bike trails has negligible effects on tree canopy and does not provide large amounts of sunlight through the canopy needed by invasives. Let’s also keep in mind the biggest disturbance of tree canopy in this area is the reservoir itself. Is there the potential for more exotic species invasion? Yes. How do we prevent that? By engaging concerned citizens, like the members of CAMBC, as enthusiastic participants in eradication efforts, not excluding them.
Should we protect the area identified in the survey report where this threatened plant exists? Yes, let’s not build any trails in the area. Keep in mind, Mr. Fleming’s recommendations pretty much excludes ANY use at the SW corner of the park including the new pontoon bridge and the opposite shoreline. 250 meters is a long way.
Allowing for circumnavigation of the reservoir and developing multiuse trails in the area farthest from the parking lot will attract cyclists to the areas where there will be the least number of hikers. That will reduce the pressure on the areas closest to the parking lot and make for fewer hiker/cyclists interactions. I believe most cyclists would choose to take different routes out and back given the opportunity. Yet if circumnavigation is not allowed, the potential exists for a hiker to be passed by the same mountain biker twice on the out-and-back.
Recommendations for Council
Council should pass an ordinance allowing mountain biking at Ragged Mountain with no restriction by area or trail. Council should then task the Parks department to engage the city’s trail planner, other trail experts and concerned citizens to create and implement a comprehensive multi-use trail plan with special consideration to hikers (in the form of hiking-only sections) and people with disabilities.