"Being against a bicycle trail is like being against God and motherhood . . . but I'm still against it," one Bethesda resident said last week prior to a U.S. District Court hearing over a proposed bike path through Little Falls Branch stream valley park in lower Bethesda.
She is one of several hundred residents who recently formed a group called Save the Westmoreland Woods, Inc. to fight both a bike trail and a sewer reconstruction project. They argue that a new sewer is not necessary and would require cutting down hundreds of trees in the southern section of the narrow stream valley park, south of Massachusetts Avenue. A bike trail would bring crime and noise, they claim, into an area that is now quiet woodland behind their homes.
The trail, part of the network of hiker-biker trails planned for almost every stream-valley park in Montgomery County, is proposed to run the length of Little Falls Branch Park from Bradley Boulevard to MacArthur Boulevard. It would provide a paved, eight-foot-wide path connecting a new county swimming pool, schools and shopping centers and offer a scenic hiking and biking route to the popular C&O Canal towpath for much of central Bethesda and Chevy Chase.
In favor of the new sewer line and bike trail are more than 300 other residents as well as Montgomery County, the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the National Capital Planning Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency.
They all insist the 50-year-old sewer line should be replaced immediately because it is a health hazard, broken in several places and polluting the stream. They say the proposed section of bike trail, which would be built along the new sewer line south of Massachusetts Avenue, would provide a safe pedestrian and bicycle route through what now is an inaccessible wooded section of regional parkland.
"This is a case of wealthy residents . . . trying to protect their own private property" which backs onto public parkland, the court was told by U.S. Attorney Walter Postula, who represents the federal agencies involed.
The Westmoreland Woods group won a restraining order from Judge Oliver Gasch in May, temporarily blocking construction of both the new sewer line and the bike path. The judge is expected to decide the issue shortly. If he rules in favor of the sewer reconstruction and bike trail, they would be built by next spring.
The anti-bike trail group already has won several concessions from the county park authority, including a relocation of the bike trail further away from houses along the edge of the park and elimination of all but one service vehicle turn-around, which would be used by sewer or park maintenance trucks.
The group contends the bike trail is really a road and that the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) should have done a detailed environmental impact statement before approving it or any of the bike trails already built in the stream valley parks the county acquired with federal funds under the 1930 Capper-Cramton Act.
Numerous bikeways have been built in county stream-valley parks, at least two - in Rock Creek and along Northwest Branch - in conjunction with sewer reconstruction projects. The NCPC approved the bike trail in June, after doing a relatively brief environmental study that concluded the Little Falls Branch bikeway actually would enhance the park, not detract from it.
In the wooded southern section it would permit "improved maintenance" by county park employes and also would give county residents access to a public park now virtually inaccessible, NCPC said. If the trail is not built, it will leave a gap in the country's popular and growing network of bicycle trails.
Those in favor of the new sewer and trail argue that the present sewer has deteriorated and "a strong odor of raw sewage pervades major sections" of what is one of Montgomery County's most polluted streams.
When a bike trail is completed along the entire Little Falls Branch Park - the suit challenges primarily a one-mile section south of Massachusetts Avenue - it will create what proponents and county officials foresee will be a scenic and popular recreational and commuter bicycle path.
A major portion of the trail, from River Road to Bradley Boulevard, is expected to be completed by next spring.