The Charlottesville Planning Commission was given the chance recently to comment on a plan to allow bicycling and running at the Ragged Mountain Natural Area.
“To be clear, consensus is not required,” Brian Daly, director of the city’s parks department, said at a commission meeting Wednesday. “As part of the process, what we wanted to hear is … your comments and thoughts and ideas about this notion.”
The city recently took over management of the natural area from the Ivy Creek Foundation following the construction of a new dam at the Ragged Mountain Reservoir.
After several months of study, the Charlottesville Parks and Recreation Advisory Board recommended, 6-2, in October that some trails in the natural area be opened to cyclists.
“There would be no biking in the southwest corner of the property, where the most significant and sensitive plant communities have been discovered,” Daly said, adding that the commission’s comments would be included with the advisory board’s recommendation.
However, the board recommended keeping dogs out.
The advisory board’s recommendation was presented to the Planning Commission even though the city code does not require that the panel make a recommendation before the City Council makes a decision.
Jody Lahendro is the planning commissioner on the parks board and was one of the two votes against expanding uses at Ragged Mountain.
“I believe that the natural area is rare and very special as being one of only two surviving in the Charlottesville region,” Lahendro said.
That sentiment was reflected by many who addressed the commission.
“I’m not advocating that cyclists and dog lovers not enjoy Ragged Mountain,” Lee Politis said. “I’m just asking that they leave their bikes and their dogs at home when they visit.”
“I believe that by voting to allow biking at Ragged Mountain, the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board failed to take into account the great imbalance between recreational activities available for families and young adults and those for older adults aged 50-plus,” said Marilynn Philippi, of Barboursville.
Former Charlottesville Mayor Kay Slaughter pointed out that the land may be owned by the city but is entirely within Albemarle County.
“Joint city-county planning, which has not occurred in this case, should have been triggered,” she said.
Slaughter said cycling trails should instead be built at the adjacent Hedgerow property, which was donated to Albemarle last year for future use as a park. She said Ragged Mountain is one of the only parks or natural areas dedicated to passive recreation and there are other places for cyclists to go.
However, one area cycling activist told the commission that the mission of the parks department is to “enhance the quality of life for all through the stewardship of public land.”
Chris Gist said Ragged Mountain’s close proximity to the urban area would help encourage the number of people who ride.
“If we’re really concerned about environmental issues in Charlottesville, what we need to do is get people out of their cars,” Gist said. “The way we’re going to get more people bicycling is to provide destinations for them from town.”
Commission discussed the matter for nearly an hour.
Lahendro defended those who want to keep Ragged Mountain for walking only.
“There is so much that is unknown by man about how ecosystems operate,” he said. “To jeopardize a preserved natural area for human recreation because it ‘belongs to all the people’ is the worst kind of human arrogance and hubris. Our natural area belongs to all living things.”
Commissioner John Santoski agreed.
“The intent originally was that Ragged Mountain and Ivy Creek were to be natural areas, and while I think there could be some rationale for expanding mountain biking there, there are also a lot of other opportunities for mountain biking,” he said. “Why do we want to rush into mountain biking at Ragged Mountain at this time?”
Commissioner Lisa Green said opening the trails to cyclists would provide a destination for them to ride to.
“If this was an opportunity, I would use it and I would ride from my home and would not get in my car, and that would be fantastic,” she said.
Green said the Charlottesville Area Mountain Bike Club and the Charlottesville Area Trail Runners are two organizations that would exercise stewardship of the trails and surrounding land.
Commissioner Genevieve Keller said the group should send a message to the City Council that nature can help relieve stress and that the city should recognize that value for the community’s psychological health.
“What we might differ on is how it’s used and how intensely it should be used,” she said. “‘Leave no trace’ should be a guiding principle whether you’re walking or biking or jogging. If there are too many traces, they should be closed down and allowed to rest for a while.”
The City Council will be asked to make a decision in the near future.