By Jim McConnell, Chesterfield Observer
After more than two years of planning, countless community meetings and a 3 1/2-hour public hearing that stretched from Wednesday night into early Thursday morning, residents remained irrevocably split on a plan to create a countywide network of bikeways and mixed-use trails.
By a 3-2 vote, the Board of Supervisors approved the inclusion of the oft-discussed Bikeways and Trails Plan as the newest chapter of the county’s comprehensive plan.
In one of his final significant votes as the Midlothian District’s supervisor, Dan Gecker joined Dorothy Jaeckle (Bermuda) and Jim Holland (Dale) in providing a hard-fought victory for supporters of the plan who stuck it out until the end of the marathon meeting.
“If we’re going to move forward in a cost-effective way, we have to plan,” said Gecker, whose eight-year tenure on the board ends Dec. 31.
Chairman Steve Elswick (Matoaca), who joined another outgoing supervisor, Art Warren (Clover Hill), in voting against the proposal, said he is “fine with planning – I just don’t support this plan.”
“I’m OK with voting ‘No’ on something that needs more work,” Elswick added.
Perhaps sensing that the outcome wasn’t going to be in their favor, several of the plan’s opponents suggested it would be appropriate for the board to defer a vote until the county’s two newly elected supervisors take office in January.
“I don’t understand why we’re in such a hurry,” said county resident John Cline. “If we’re going to do this, why not take our time?”
Gecker’s successor, local attorney Leslie Haley, expressed hope during a recent interview that the board wouldn’t rush to approve a plan that isn’t expected to be fully implemented for 50 years.
But despite lingering questions about how the county plans to fund construction of the 360-mile bikeways and trails network, and how it can bring such an ambitious plan to fruition without violating citizens’ property rights, the five supervisors never publicly discussed passing off the plan to the incoming board.
“This is not a plan that says we’re going to do all this and spend all this money without any more public input,” Jaeckle said.
At this point, nobody knows for sure what the Bikeways and Trails Plan’s final price tag will be.
The county’s initial estimate was $360 million – or $1 million per mile – but staff quickly backed off that figure following citizen outcry and removed any reference to the plan’s cost in its second draft.
Opponents of the plan said that taxpayer funds would be better spent on hiring additional police officers, firefighters and teachers and paying those employees more competitive wages.
The plan’s supporters argued that building sidewalks, bikeways and mixed-use trails is an investment in the county’s future: To make the county more attractive to young professionals and families who seek out walkable, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, such amenities are critical.
“One thing I find confounding is that we seem to be arguing against each other,” said Mary-Ann Ford, a county resident and one of several avid cyclists who spoke at Wednesday’s public hearing.
“I don’t understand how this has become a divisive issue,” she said. “If we’re going to become the kind of county we need to be, we have to have connectivity.”