“We do have a process for our parks that we always follow and it wasn’t followed,” said Councilor Dede Smith said. “I can see how this happened, but it’s not what we do in the city.”
The city’s parks and recreation department has taken over management of the natural area from the Ivy Creek Foundation, which restricted trails to people on foot. Since the expansion of the reservoir, trail planners have been working on a plan to open them up to cyclists, runners and dogs.
The Ragged Mountain Natural Area surrounds the Ragged Mountain Reservoir and the land has been protected for use in the urban water supply since the first dam was built on the site around 1885. The natural area is in Albemarle County near the end of Fontaine Ave and Camp Holiday Trails on land owned by the City of Charlottesville.
At a public meeting Monday, several people pleaded with Council to keep the natural area as is.
“From the beginning of the management plans at Ivy Creek there was a vision of maintaining the area as natural as possible while providing public access for largely non-disturbing recreation such as hiking, fishing, wildlife and bird study,” said Bess Murray who has worked and volunteered for the Ivy Creek Foundation.
Murray said runners, dogs and cyclists are not suitable in a rare natural area.
However, the president of the Charlottesville Area Mountain Bike Club said the goal was to provide a better area for everyone.
“We care about Ragged Mountain, we care about getting people in nature,” said Sam Lindblom said. “We know that if you want to love nature, you got to go there and not many go to Ragged Mountain Natural Area.”
Council had been asked whether to change the rules while the city’s trails planner develops a plan to restore trails submerged when the reservoir was expanded as part of the community water supply plan approved in January 2012.
“We’re still awaiting final results of the eco-studies and bio-blitzes so to speak so that we know places that we would avoid putting any trails no matter the use,” said Chris Gensic.
However, Smith said she was concerned the Ragged Mountain Natural Area was not getting the same master planning treatment as other parks. For instance, the east side of McIntire Park was debated for several years.
“You’ve already started with the implementation without having a master plan,” Smith said. She wanted to ensure both the wildlife community and the Ednam Forest neighborhood in Albemarle County are included in an enhanced planning process.
Gensic said staff were restoring trails that had been lost when the reservoir was expanded but that a master planning process could begin.
“We’ve advised everybody that this is a public process and no decisions have been made,” Gensic said.
However, Smith asked for a formal public hearing on the case because she said not all voices had been heard on the rules change.
Ornithologist Doug Rogers said the Ragged Mountain Natural Area provided habitat for many species of birds, but especially bluebirds and kestrels which are in decline.
“That habitat will be degraded if you makes these rules of use change,” Rogers said. “All wildlife identifies dogs as predators. It disrupts their natural rhythms and their breeding patterns.”
However, Lindblom said he felt like the process was being hijacked.
“A vote against this is a vote to keep Ragged Mountain as an exclusive-use property for an exceptionally narrow demographic in our community.” Lindblom said. “A vote for it is a vote for collaboration, community involvement, a healthier community and more people in nature.”
More than two dozen people spoked during the public hearing with the supporters of shared use making up a slight majority.
“Great cities have great useable green spaces,” said John Andersen, co-owner of Crozet Running. “This is the green space if you look at Charlottesville to have a greenway coming in from the Fontaine Research [Park] area.”
During Council discussion, Smith pointed to a matrix of Albemarle parks and noted that you can ride a mountain bike in six of them. She added that the mountain biking club has already helped to build trails at Preddy Creek Park and the Patricia Ann Byrom Forest Preserve Park.
“Natural areas are rare,” Smith said. “There are only two in our park system that are reserved for this very special activity that enables education and the wildlife benefits.”
City Councilor Kathy Galvin said she was optimistic that the entire community could come together to collaborate on a trail network that has something to offer everybody.
“Sharing space is what a city is all about,” Galvin said. “Let’s bring the expertise of the naturalists into the mix as well. No one is excluded from this.”
However, not all Councilors supported moving forward.
“I think it would be premature for us to vote on this tonight,” said Councilor Bob Fenwick. “I would like to see the planning process go through.”
“I think we do need to plan for how this will be a park that can reconcile these differences,” Smith said. “You can’t do that before you know what’s there.”
Mayor Satyendra Huja said he did ultimately support shared use of the trail network, but he wants the planning done first.
Fenwick made a motion to table further consideration of changing the rules until the results of a natural resources inventory are available. It was approved 3-2 with Huja and Smith in favor.
Councilor Kristin Szakos made a motion to indicate that Council supports a shared use strategy, and it passed 3-2 with Fenwick and Smith voting against.