Tim and Rachel Tessier always imagined they would live in the city. They loved their home in Charlottesville’s Belmont neighborhood and being steps away from the Downtown Mall. But six years ago, they decided to move with their children to Foxcroft in Albemarle County.
One reason for their choice was the trail that runs behind the Foxcroft and Mill Creek subdivisions from the future Biscuit Run Park to Fifth Street Extended and connects to the Rivanna Trail network, a 20-mile loop around the city.
“As soon as we walked out on the trails, we knew, ‘Oh, OK, this won’t be so bad,’” Rachel Tessier said.
The Tessiers bike all over the city and parts of Albemarle on the Rivanna Trail, including to Observatory Hill by the University of Virginia. Their son bikes to classes at Piedmont Virginia Community College.
The family is living a vision proposed by the Piedmont Environmental Council of a completely connected Charlottesville and Albemarle County, where walkers and bikers travel to work near cars but are never endangered by them.
“How do we have more green space in our urban area that people can access? Well, instead of more parks, the way to do that is to build green space that’s a vital part of somebody’s daily life. They’re using that green space to get to the shopping center, they’re using it to get to work,” said Rex Linville, a PEC field representative for Charlottesville and Albemarle.
Now, with Biscuit Run potentially opening in the spring of 2020, PEC and Albemarle are hoping to start on the southern piece of their connectivity puzzle.
From the county’s largest subdivision to the county’s largest park
Even with a park taking up a third of the land, the 1,200-acre Biscuit Run property was slated to be Albemarle’s largest planned community.
In 2005, Forest Lodge LLC purchased the parcel for $46.2 million from the Breeden family. The property straddles the limits of Albemarle’s development area, a 5 percent slice of the county where intense development is allowed.
The developers proposed rezoning the parcel to allow for 3,100 residential units on about 800 acres and set aside about 400 acres for a park. Under Biscuit Run’s 2005 zoning, fewer than 1,500 homes could be built on the property.
According to a site plan by Maryland-based Torti Gallas + Partners, Biscuit Run “town” would have featured an elementary school on an 11-acre site, a branch of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library and 150,000 square feet of retail space.
“Neighborhoods, hamlets and pocket parks are nestled in the rolling topography connected by a pedestrian-friendly street network. A full [complement] of pedestrian and equestrian trails will connect throughout Biscuit Run to a larger regional recreational system,” the webpage on Biscuit Run states.
“Biscuit Run was going to be essentially putting Crozet right across the street from us. That’s how big and dense the development was going to be,” said Mill Creek South resident John Hermsmeier.
In late 2007, Biscuit Run’s rezoning unanimously passed the Board of Supervisors, clearing the way for what county officials said would be Albemarle’s largest subdivision.
The designation never came to fruition. Three months after the board’s decision, the Great Recession officially began. In the wake of the 18-month economic downturn, Forest Lodge sought a way out before the first shovelful of dirt was turned.
A proposal was floated to convert the entirety of the Biscuit Run property into a park. After negotiations with the state, Forest Lodge sold the property to the commonwealth below market value in exchange for Virginia Land Preservation Tax Credits and federal deductions. In December 2009, the Biscuit Run site became the property of the state for about $10 million and $12 million in tax credits. An Albemarle judge in 2013 ruled that the state undervalued the property in its negotiations with Forest Lodge and awarded the LLC an additional $20 million in tax credits.
Hermsmeier already had said goodbye to the forest when he heard about Forest Lodge’s change in plans.
“We’ve sort of lucked out,” he said. “Thank God for the recession! That’s a strange way to put it, right?”
With the property in the state’s hands, Biscuit Run was slated to become a state park with a 2014 opening date, depending on the General Assembly’s approval of a bond referendum in 2012. Lawmakers did not move that forward and, in 2016, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe asked for a bond package that included $42 million for Biscuit Run State Park. That request did not make it out of committee.
Two years later, in one of his final acts as governor, McAuliffe announced a 99-year lease of the future parkland to Albemarle at no cost. The move was made with a goal of getting the park open as quickly as possible. With the entire 1,200 acres in the county’s hands, Biscuit Run will be the Albemarle’s largest park once it officially opens.
“What we inherited here essentially has been a park,” said Dan Mahon, the county’s outdoor recreation supervisor.
“It’s not like we’re coming to a blank slate.”
Several websites list Biscuit Run as a place to ride or run, and one suggests Foxcroft as a place to park to access it.
“These trails were too short and there may be some more trails further into the trespassing areas,” one review reads.
“Mostly ATV-style trails, but there’s a ton to explore. I’ve made a few trails of my own that link some of these up to each other,” reads another post.
Another listed a time and location to meet up for a group run.
County Supervisor Rick Randolph said a phased park opening “to at least allow the trails to be cut and identified” could occur as early as spring 2020, if supervisors appropriate funds in the upcoming budget. Mahon said the county will close off the unofficial access as it begins work on the park.
Currently, $4 million is in the proposed fiscal year 2020 Capital Improvement Plan for the park.
“I would like to see it open as quickly as possible because I know there is huge pent-up demand. … I will be pushing for that, to try to have an expedited schedule, an informal, softer opening,” said Randolph, whose Scottsville District contains the park.
“We just have to see what we all agree to do.”
On Wednesday, the Board of Supervisors approved the Biscuit Run Park master plan in a 5-1 vote. Supervisor Norman Dill voted not to approve the plan on the grounds that the county should have a minimalist plan for the park to focus on other connectivity projects.
The shift from state to local control of Biscuit Run has changed the park itself.
Through a series of meetings and a form that went online in June, the county heard that the public wanted more than a state park dropped into their midst.
“People felt very strongly that the park absolutely had to be connected to the urban neighborhoods,” said David Anhold of Anhold Associates, the firm hired to design the park.
“The park absolutely had to provide for the recreational needs of those neighborhoods, and it would be even more ideal if those could be within walking distance.”
The state had planned to construct a parking lot and trailhead off Route 20 and campgrounds, a discovery center and picnic shelters within the park. After hearing local feedback, Anhold Associates moved the activity areas to the edges of the property and proposed more ways for people to enter the trails.
One of the new trailheads will be on Hickory Street, next to the Covenant School and the Southwood Mobile Home Park.
Isabel Fernandez, who lives in Southwood, said she likes the idea of entering the Biscuit Run trails from her neighborhood.
“Sometimes, community members like to jog and walk together. We go around the community, for a loop,” Fernandez said through interpreter Molly McCumber, the community coordinator at Southwood.
More than half of Southwood residents are of Honduran, Salvadoran or Mexican descent.
Occasionally Fernandez goes to the Saunders-Monticello Trail, but she noted that she has to drive there.
Fernandez was sitting with eight neighbors and several employees of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville. The group meets frequently to plan the redevelopment of Southwood from 341 trailers into a neighborhood of permanent homes.
Fernandez’s neighbors were excited about the amenities that the final park would contain, particularly the cookout shelters and athletic fields planned for the Route 20 side of the park.
Liduvina, who preferred not to provide her last name, said she hopes some of the athletic fields are soccer fields.
“The kids here play all the time. Right now, this one tiny soccer field isn’t sufficient. It’s full all the time, and there’s never space to play on it,” she said through McCumber.
“We don’t have anything like ballparks where they could play baseball or softball. I think it’s so funny in Charlottesville, because they don’t want your kids to play on those fields unless there’s a game. I think that’s so ridiculous. I think the kids ought to be able to play on that field anytime they want,” Joann Pugh said.
Reina Vázquez agreed, saying that she and her son have experienced the same thing and that they would like to join pickup games.
This is my backyard.
Mill Creek resident Cecilia Schultz said she is concerned about the environmental impact of making the park public. She is among those already using the park.
“I’ve been walking back here every single day — every single day — for 20 years. This is my backyard. … I know 26 species of wildflowers that grow back there. I can identify all the trees and the mushrooms. It’s an incredibly diverse habitat there,” said Schultz, who teaches science at Henley Middle School.
Most of Biscuit Run contains old farmsteads and pastures that have since been abandoned and reclaimed by wildlife. However, in the three older blocks of forest, there are several rare ecosystems that the landscape architects designed the park to protect.
“The woods are mostly used for multiuse trails and mountain bike areas,” Anhold said. “We really picture this as having more of a woodland and somewhat wilderness experience.”
Anhold Associates has proposed that the county start developing the park by constructing the trailheads and restrooms but otherwise make few changes to the park’s current form. The athletic fields and circulator trail, which would be wheelchair- and stroller-friendly, would come in the second and third phases.
The design firm has projected that the first phase would cost between $6.5 million and $7.5 million. The total cost estimate for the three phases is $31 million to $34 million.
Biscuit Run is set to receive $5 million in funding from one of the two controversial natural gas pipelines set to cross Virginia. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which has received condemnation from numerous environmental groups, does not enter Albemarle, but it crosses nearby Nelson and Buckingham counties.
“I have absolutely no objection to creating and preserving more green space in the state of Virginia, but it is coming at a cost to your neighbors in your backyard,” said Buckingham County resident Chad Oba at an Albemarle County Board of Supervisors meeting last week. “Please do not accept that money. It is blood money. We will suffer.”
Oba lives in Union Hill, a historically black neighborhood in Buckingham. Dominion Energy and the other utility companies in charge of the project plan to put one of the pipeline’s three compressor stations in Union Hill.
In a memorandum of agreement with the state, Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC allocated a portion of nearly $58 million for the mitigation of forest fragmentation in Virginia’s portion of the 600-mile route to the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation. According to a January letter from state secretary of natural resources to the CACF, $4 million of the allocation is to go toward the construction of Biscuit Run Park infrastructure and $1 million for the park’s administrative support.
At two recent meetings, Albemarle supervisors have expressed some discomfort in receiving funds attached to the pipeline project, but no action has been taken to reconsider accepting the funds.
“It makes me grievously uncomfortable that we are being paid off to be silent and not stand up for our neighbors,” Chairwoman Ann H. Mallek said at a recent board meeting.
Connecting to Wegmans
For Linville, the new Biscuit Run design is promising, but the red dotted lines leading off the map are the most exciting.
“PEC has been working for a long time on the question of how can we connect the places where people live with the natural areas through connections that are themselves highly nature-full,” Linville’s colleague, Peter Krebs, said.
“What has changed, I will say, within the last 18 months is that the planning district commission is revising its decennial bike-ped plan.”
The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission currently is updating its 2004 Jefferson Area Bike and Pedestrian Plan. The commission coordinates transportation, housing and other planning projects between Charlottesville, Albemarle and surrounding counties.
As part of the update process, the TJPDC scored potential projects by their proximity to schools, parks and grocery stores. Other factors included straddling the city-county line, population density in the area and proximity to minority-dominated or impoverished neighborhoods.
Minority communities are in particular need of safer transportation infrastructure across the country and the state. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System data, 111 pedestrians died in car crashes in Virginia in 2017. Of the 100 people with a race listed, 62 were white and 33 were black.
Virginia is 70 percent white and 20 percent black, according to the most recent census.
One of the projects that came out on top in the TJPDC scoring was the corridor between Biscuit Run Park and the Downtown Mall. Adding to the ripeness of the project is a trail hub planned near the Wegmans at 5th St. Station.
The TJPDC has the money to build the trail hub, too. Albemarle received $250,000 in the 2008 rezoning that allowed 5th St. Station to happen, and the TJPDC won $400,000 from the Virginia Department of Transportation in 2016. In addition, both the TJPDC and PEC won a “Strengthening Systems” grant from the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation for approximately $180,000 over two years.
“That is intended to be a hub of bike-ped connectivity. It only will be a hub if we build the other pieces — the spokes — into it,” Linville said.
One of the spokes would lead into Charlottesville and beyond. Chris Gensic, the city’s park and trail planner, said the city is excited that a park of this size and scope will be nearby.
“… there’s a neat opportunity to have a connection from the Downtown Mall out to such a massive piece of property like that,” Gensic said.
“We’re trying to expand the trail system and connect the gaps between. … They’re not quite a network,” he said.
City officials are working to get permissions to create a trail system with very few conflicts with cars. Even with easements, some routes are easier said than done.
“The city traffic people, and I think also the county traffic people, have been looking at the entire Fifth Street corridor from the recycling center kind of out to where Biscuit Run will be in terms of how that road corridor can be improved, of course, for traffic and the bicycle and pedestrian portion of that. … Even if we get a nice Moores Creek trail, it’s not like there is an obvious green space from the Downtown Mall out to Biscuit Run,” Gensic said.
Most likely, there will be a portion of the route that includes a current sidewalk or bike lane between Biscuit Run and the mall before returning to a parklike setting, Gensic said.
“Probably the most complicated part is from about the Willoughby neighborhood to Elliott/Cherry Avenue because quite a bit of that is already developed, so it’s not like you can put these things in people’s yards,” he said.
City officials are negotiating with the homeowners association in Willoughby about using a portion of its trail system to aid in building an off-street connection from Fifth Street Extended to Jordan Park. And a potential route through Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority property could play a role in filling a missing link, Gensic said.
“There is the Pollock’s Branch trail, and that may be the sweet spot coming from Jordan Park up Sixth Street. … We’re working on that connection,” he said.
“That probably will be the best off-street option,” he said.
From there, the trail could be routed along South First Street or through the IX property, “and then you can come into the mall from Second Street Southeast, and it’s a much quieter traffic environment there,” he said.
The final design of that trail hinges on a CRHA plan to construct more housing units. Recently, the authority asked the city for funds to redevelop Crescent Halls and properties on South First Street and Levy Avenue. On South First Street, officials plan to redevelop 58 existing units and build 80 additional units on vacant land at the intersection of South First and Hartmans Mill Road.
“In the short term, this is going to be a nature trail because we don’t know the South First Street redevelopment, what it’s going to look like,” Gensic said.
Once the redevelopment is completed, the trail will be converted into a paved multi-use trail, matching the others that also serve as commuter routes, he said.
“We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. … We’re going to wait and let them figure out what they want to do with their property.”
The key spoke between Biscuit Run and 5th St. Station is the trail running behind the backyards of families like the Tessiers. The decision about whether to make the trail public rests in the hands of Mill Creek and Foxcroft homeowners.
Tim Tessier, who said people already drive into the neighborhood to use the trail, said the semi-public use of the trail doesn’t bother him.
“What we were hoping for is that the park open first before they decide to build a connecting trail. Because otherwise, people will get started and they’ll be moving along the trail, and if it doesn’t end somewhere, then they’re ending at your back doorstep,” Tessier said.
Mahon estimated that conversations about that trail have occurred on and off for 15 years. The opening of Biscuit Run changes that conversation.
“Our big concern is that if we don’t get managed access through there, when the park opens … it would be hard to stop people from using that connection. And if we have to put a gate up, the inverse problem will be that the people who live there won’t be able to get out [and use the trail or access the park easily],” he said.
“There was a certain palpable fear of outsiders on the trail, but the national statistics about the construction of recreational trails to a community, it’s pretty powerful that it’s going to result in increased value of the properties because of a recreational amenity that did not exist before, or it has existed before but it never legally existed and was never maintained as a public access way, as it would be if the county was working with the HOAs on this,” Supervisor Randolph said. “So, this is all a matter of negotiating and working with the HOAs, and we’re totally deferential to what they want to do and trying to address their concerns and issues.”
The county and PEC met with the homeowners’ associations on Nov. 29 and were pleased by the reaction.
“I was prepared to answer a lot of concerns about stranger fear, and things they could do as if it’s something to be mitigated, but it really just didn’t come up,” Krebs, of PEC, said.
“There was more fear about wildflowers getting trampled than there was about strangers, seriously,” Linville said
The question of safety
What the Biscuit Run and connector trails look like will affect who feels comfortable using them, according to a recent survey by PEC on perceptions of local trails.
“Through the lens of female perception of comfort, safety and, therefore, accessibility, probably more than half of our existing inventory gets removed from the table,” Krebs said.
PEC collected survey responses in person and online from May to September. Of the 857 respondents, roughly half identified as female. Approximately 12 percent of female respondents, compared with fewer than 3 percent of male respondents, cited crime and safety as a reason they avoid walking and biking in their daily lives.
Women also saw darkness as a more significant barrier to walking and biking than did men in the survey. Among female respondents, 18 percent chose darkness as a challenge, compared with 11 percent of male respondents.
These gender differences continued in perceptions of high-quality spaces. Sixty-three women and 33 men preferred routes with many people over routes with few people. On the other hand, 53 women and 101 men said their high-quality space involved challenging terrain.
Through the survey and Krebs’ trail hub engagement efforts, Krebs found that people were more likely to enjoy the trail next to the new Berkmar Drive Extended and less likely to enjoy the Rivanna Trail than he expected.
“The Berkmar corridor is a shared-use path that’s wide and open and lit. … It’s got cars near it so you’re visible to other people. Whereas, if you go down into [most of] the Rivanna Trail, you’re in the deep, dark woods on this little single-path trail and you can’t see what’s around the corner in front of you,” Linville explained.
Charles Brown, a professor at Rutgers University, researches barriers to transportation related to race, class, gender and mobility. At a recent talk organized by PEC at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, Brown offered a personal example of the way race affects his feeling of safety.
Brown, who is African-American, said he was invited to speak at a conference at a barn in Roanoke earlier this year. The barn was adjacent to a low-income, black neighborhood, which Brown passed on the car ride to the conference.
“We get to a gate, and this gate and this barn is where a lot of beautiful weddings take place. It’s one of the most visited spots for weddings in Virginia,” Brown said. “The moment the gate opened, the hair on my body started to stand up.”
Brown reminded the audience that he was from Mississippi — “so I’m certified in terms of my Deep South-ness.”
He went to the bathroom to splash water on his face and calm down. Then his mother asked to Facetime.
“I step out of the bathroom. … She said, ‘Where are you?’” Brown recalled. “‘That looks like a place where people may have been enslaved or hung from the rafters.’ My mom said this to me.”
The PEC survey did not have a large enough dataset to draw conclusions about race in the local trail system. Eighty-four percent of PEC respondents identified as white, Caucasian or European-American.
In Brown’s research on New Jersey neighborhoods, he found that fear is a significant barrier to biking in black and Hispanic communities. Sixteen percent of respondents reported that fear of robbery or assault affected their desire to bike, and 8 percent reported fear of being profiled by police.
“Proximity isn’t access,” he said. “In Charlottesville, that environment is the fact that I may be stopped and frisked before I can get to you. Even though it’s two steps away, it feels like it’s 15 miles away.”
The Charlottesville Police Department disproportionately stops and frisks African-American men, data show. In September, the police department stopped 80 people to investigate whether they had committed a crime; 27 of the people stopped were black and male and 34 were white and male.
Approximately 19 percent of Charlottesville’s population is black and 70 percent is white.
Brown listed other components of Charlottesville’s environment, such as residential segregation and the demolition of the black business district Vinegar Hill that allowed the city to build Ridge McIntire Road.
Andrew Gast-Bray, director of planning for Albemarle County, asked during the audience question period what the county could do to better represent the community.
“I’m part of the establishment of white men in positions of power, quote unquote. I think there’s a desire to change that, but it’s hard to go from where we are and not where we want to be,” Gast-Bray said.
“You’ve got to diversify your staff [and your leadership]. I’m not going to let you skip that part,” Brown answered.
Brown suggested that planning groups offer translations in all of the languages spoken by the populations they represent, that they hold meetings where people already gather, and that they remain conscious of the reputations of their regular meeting places among marginalized groups.
“In addition to that, you have to think like your inner child — why you had no problem playing with black people when you were a child,” Brown said. “If you think like your inner child, which I try to do … I have no issues whatsoever walking up to every single person in this room.”
Krebs said that going into communities and meeting people where they are has been the premise of his work under the CACF grant.
“I think we’re doing a great job of getting out into communities,” he said. “I know that we need to do a better job of having people from many different backgrounds and sets of perspectives within our leadership group.”
Biscuit Run Park and the path along its eponymous creek are a chance for many residents to see the county invest in their neighborhoods and promote a greener future.
“This answer isn’t more and more cars,” Randolph said. “[We’re] coming to the recognition that we’re not just a sleepy little Southern city, and Albemarle County no longer is a rural county. We are three counties in one — urban, suburban and rural — and we need to look at ways to enable people in the urban portion of the county to access the urban center of the doughnut that the county surrounds by means other than the automobile.”
And despite the oft-heard refrain that Charlottesville and Albemarle aren’t on the same page, Gensic and Mahon both said that parks and recreation staff in the city and the county have been working together closely to unify their plans and nomenclature for footpaths and the broad, paved multi-use trails.
“Our goal in the trail world is that the user of the trail doesn’t care whether they’re in the city or the county or UVa property or state property at Biscuit Run,” Gensic said “The family taking an outing shouldn’t know or care about the difference all that much.”
While the opening date for the park is not finalized, community members have several ways to get involved now.
The county’s Natural Heritage Committee already harnesses community expertise to protect local biodiversity. Mahon is developing a Trail Ambassador program to further utilize that enthusiasm.
“They are volunteers who will be working with us to hike around and meet folks, answer questions they may have, help us deter some unwanted uses,” Mahon said. “If folks want to volunteer and have skills, like botany or birdwatching, all of that information is good and useful. They can be out collecting data while they are providing this sense of security to the community.”
Meanwhile, some community members continue to push the Board of Supervisors to open the park in limited capacity now rather than waiting until after funding has been approved.
“Please don’t deny access to this wonderful space,” said John Lewis, a board member of the Charlottesville Area Mountain Bike Club.
This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Liduvina’s name.