The Chesterfield County Planning Commission on Tuesday signed off on a draft plan that calls for 360 miles of new bicycle pathways and trails throughout the county.
The plan now goes to the county’s Board of Supervisors for a final vote.
During a public hearing on the issue Tuesday, dozens of advocates on both sides clashed over the plan’s purpose, prompting commission member William P. Brown to muse about where the conflict comes from.
“Abortion is a polarizing issue. This is not a polarizing issue — I just don’t get it,” Brown said, adding that he hopes for the plan to bring “a lot of value to the citizens of the county.”
Critics of the plan have raised questions about a potential infringement on private property and the impact on the environment and wildlife, while others have expressed concern with practicality and funding of the plan that would be implemented over 50 years. Some speculate the trails system could come with a price tag that by far exceeds all county projections.
John Pettengill with the Chesterfield Patriot Caucus, a group of local conservative activists, called the plan a “progressive entitlement” that only a minority of county residents will use.
“It is going to cost us probably a billion by the time you get 20 years out, and it is going to benefit 10 percent of the community at the expense of 90 percent,” Pettengill said.
Howard Nester Jr., president of the Chesterfield Farm Bureau, asked the commission to postpone a decision on the proposal.
“Some of us look at this plan and see parts that are good but think that it’s incomplete,” Nester said. “This is a 50-year plan, there is no inflation in the cost of building or maintaining this. I don’t understand why we are in a hurry to do this process; we need to get this right.”
Nester’s points were echoed by commission member Edgar V. Wallin, who said he was “an advocate” for the bike trails plan, but made a motion for a 60-day deferral.
“You don’t know where the trails are and how much will be spent. It’s a matter of prioritizing some of the existing expenditures,” he said.
But the county’s latest cost analysis projects a significantly lower number than many of the estimates that had been circulating over the past year. Project manager Heather Barrar said that many factors influence the exact cost of adding bicycle and pedestrian accommodations in a given area, and could include facility type, topography, environmental constraints, land costs, and utility relocation.
“Generally they vary between $250,000 to $1 million per mile for newly constructed shared use paths, to $30,000-$60,000 per mile for retrofitting of existing roadways for bike lanes,” Barrar said in an email.
Many of the plan’s supporters touted the health benefits and connectivity and said that a bike trail would reap economic benefits.
Ken Robertson, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army and an avid cyclist, said the plan had a “great ability to attract talent to the area and businesses that want to locate here.”
Jo Gehlbach with the Richmond Association of Realtors said that property values increase when they are adjacent to bike trails and paths, and Ashley Mann of Midlothian said that “building out these trails will improve the quality for all of us.”
The first plans for bicycle infrastructure in Chesterfield County date back to 1989, when the current Bikeways Plan was adopted. Three years ago, the Board of Supervisors adopted a countywide comprehensive plan that included an implementation step to amend the Bikeways Plan to improve the county’s biking and hiking infrastructure.
The Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission unanimously endorsed the plan earlier this year. Following a public hearing by the Planning Commission in June, which led to a variety of public concerns, the commission deferred the original plan and, with public input, produced a second draft that was posted to the Internet for comment.
Barrar, who said she has been working on bike trail plans for 16 years, on Tuesday tried to ease concerns, saying that the county is not “looking to eliminate the car.”
“I can personally say that the interest (in bike trails) is more than we have ever seen in the county. Each month we have about 50,000 people using county parks and trails,” she said.
Michael S. Golden, parks and recreation director, said in an interview Monday that many people would rather bike or hike to the places they go than drive.
“Chesterfield really is an active community. All the studies we have seen show that if you have facilities for bicycling and hiking, people will use them,” he said.
The Board of Supervisors has set its public hearing on the bike plan for Nov. 18. Several board members have set additional community meetings in their districts.