In October 2014 the Fairfax County Park Authority destroyed a perfectly good footbridge that had been in place, with two others, for over a decade. Built by the Miller Heights Neighborhood Association with the advice of structural and flood engineers, it was one of three footbridges enabling easy passage for both pedestrians and dogs, and bicyclists, from Vale Road to the north down to Oakton Road in the south.
We are pleased to report that the footbridge has been rebuilt by the County, with both an apology and a commitment to take a “second look” at the existing strategy and policies related to stream trails and citizen-built bridges.
Chairman Sharon Bulova and her staff, as well as Park Director Kirk Kincannon and Park Division Director Todd Johnson, responded with intelligence and integrity to citizen protests.
Over the course of two months of professional interaction we learned:
- In the grand scheme of things, stream trails are considered “informal” trails that are not maintained by the Park Authority
- Footbridges, horsebridges, and anything else built without Park Authority permission are considered encroachments subject to immediate destruction at taxpayer expense
- The Park Authority estimates that there are 50-100 miles of stream trails within Fairfax County. They don’t actually know.
- While private property lines bordering on park lands held in public trust are a matter of clear public record, there are many overlapping easements and rights of way (US Geological Survey and utility companies, for example), such that for any given point, it is not a simple matter to nail down who all the stakeholders might be.
- We estimate there are no fewer than 500 footbridges as well as some pretty sizeable horsebridges across the varied stream trails of Fairfax County. The actual total could well be over 1,000.
- The original assumption by the Park Authority that citizen-built footbridges and horsebridges were a legal liability and a safety hazard has been found to be incorrect. The insurance authority has offered the view that as long as all bridges are inspected annually for safety (not necessarily by a County employee) and constructed to a common standard (approved by the Park Authority), there is no bar to registering and protecting all such works.
Preliminary discussions with various parties have been helpful. It appears that there may be an opportunity to bring together volunteer labor, money from homeowners, Homeowner Associations (HOA), and perhaps even varied sponsors (churches, cycling clubs, corporations), and oversight from the Park Authority, to elevate Stream Trails to fully maintained status with a strategic plan for assuring ease of passage for pedestrians, dogs, and cyclists.
Over the course of the next few months, we will seek to develop formal agreements and standards, and take this new approach to Stream Trails for a test drive. If this proves as fruitful as we anticipate, the concept and related information will be offered to other counties in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, and then to any and all Counties that might wish to take an interest.