A walk in the woods is hardly just a walk in the woods these days, at least not when asphalt ends up pitted against nature.
The Montgomery County Planning Board sided with asphalt last week with a unanimous vote for construction of a hard-surface trail through the Matthew Henson State Park and Greenway. The Matthew Henson Trail would extend from east of Layhill Road to south of Veirs Mill Road, ultimately connecting the Rock Creek Trail to the west with the Northwest Branch and Sligo Creek trails to the east.
Park planners see it as a vital link in the county's system -- and one that would offer "an attractive outdoor experience" for the tens of thousands of people living in proximity in Aspen Hill and Wheaton.
Given the county's severe fiscal constraints, however, the trail's 4.5 miles still could be a long way off. The same could be said for any meeting of the minds among the civic associations, bicyclists and environmentalists who have taken often impassioned positions on the project during the past two years.
"Unnecessary and ill-conceived," one neighbor blasted.
"Delayed far too long," a cyclist stressed.
As approved, the trail would be an 8-foot-wide ribbon costing $4.5 million to build -- $1 million a mile, in part because of construction considerations through wetlands and woodlands. The final price tag could double depending on county land negotiations with the state and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
The project next goes before the County Council. Planning Board Chairman Derick Berlage knows it will provoke much lobbying there by local residents and recreationalists, as well as questions from council members facing a $320 million budget deficit.
"You can take the thousands and thousands of users over the next several years and divide that into the cost," Berlage suggested Friday, voicing his own support. "Yes, we are in tough economic times. But this project has been part of the [Aspen Hill] Master Plan for many, many years, and it will serve many people. And once it is built, it will be part of the county forever."
Montgomery has more than 300 miles of trails, but at least three-quarters of that is unpaved and difficult, if not impossible, for strollers, wheelchairs and other wheels to maneuver. According to park and planning officials, surveys "have indicated over 10 times as many people using hard-surface versus natural-surface trails."
Hence their recommendation for asphalt on the Matthew Henson Trail. But that has drawn as much criticism as applause.
The Planning Board received dozens of letters. One listed the "multiple negative ways" the paved trail would impact his community; another called it "economically and ecologically bad policy." On the other side, a parent wrote that he and his children were "greatly looking forward" to riding the trail and warned that just because the NIMBYs whine "the loudest doesn't mean they are a representative voice."
The testimony last week before the Planning Board's vote included that spectrum of sentiments. "It was a spirited public hearing," said Berlage, who did not adjourn the meeting until nearly midnight.
The trail would start at the Rock Creek Trail and head northeast, crossing Veirs Mill Road and ducking under Connecticut Avenue. It would intersect Georgia Avenue near Hewitt Avenue, just below the southern corner of Gate of Heaven cemetery, continue beyond Layhill Road and dead-end at Alderton Road. "In the middle of nowhere," detractors say.
Along the way, planning documents indicate, signs will mark mileage, directions and "changes in the natural environment." The life of Henson, a Maryland native and one of the first North Pole explorers, will be detailed, too.
The Sierra Club's county chapter has supported a narrower, natural-surface trail as the best compromise through the park -- "the last remaining undeveloped green space in this midcounty area," spokesman Jim Fary said. He worries about damage to riparian buffers and mature forests: "Five acres of trees would be lost. . . . Other trees would die because their critical root systems would be damaged."
Homeowners, some living in a state-designated "Hot Spot" crime area, fear a paved path would provide criminals with quick access in and out of their neighborhoods.
Berlage and others in Park and Planning acknowledge that a hard surface will result in more environmental degradation but that construction can be environmentally sensitive. They also say that the greater number of people drawn by a paved trail actually could result in more safety for all.
Opponents and proponents tried during this year's General Assembly session to influence legislation directing a land transfer from the State Highway Administration to the local commission for part of this project. Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), remembering the environmental argument that helped create the park more than a decade ago, pushed unsuccessfully for language that would require a non-asphalt bike trail.
In the end, lawmakers voted to let the commission plan the trail, as well as negotiate with state officials over the cost of the more than 37 acres between Georgia Avenue and the Northwest Branch Park.
Del. Henry B. Heller (D-Montgomery) was pleased. A longtime Aspen Hill resident, he'll be a trail neighbor. "It just opens up a tremendous amount of recreational activity in this part of the county," he said.