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After 8-year legal battle, debate resumes over biking at Ragged Mountain Natural Area

It took the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County more than eight years to settle a lawsuit to determine which locality had jurisdiction over 7 miles of trails looping around the Ragged Mountain Reservoir.

While the city owned the land, it physically sat within Albemarle County lines.

The county won, which means county policies now go into effect at the Ragged Mountain Natural Area surrounding the reservoir. That means no cycling or horseback riding.

After the settlement was announced, it was a matter of days before the Charlottesville Area Mountain Bike Club rallied the local mountain biking community — which had been using the Ragged Mountain trails while the city and county fought it out in court — and petitioned the county to change its policies and designate at least one trail “shared use,” allowing cyclists to continue riding.

“We just went through the pandemic, we know how important these trails are to people,” Dave Stackhouse, a member of the club, told The Daily Progress. “It would be a crying shame if our children and future generations couldn’t share it as a community with all of these healthy outdoor pursuits.”

Stackhouse said the point of contention has always been cycling near the reservoir’s water supply, and never horseback riding — though the latter has been regularly brought up in conversations and in news stories, perhaps because it poses a more obvious risk to the safety of the water in the reservoir.

“There was never horseback riding at the reservoir,” said Stackhouse. “We don’t really know where that came from.”

Jim Andrews, chairman of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, confirmed to The Daily Progress that no equestrian group has petitioned to ride the trails.

As it currently stands, county policies allow only hiking, birdwatching and picnicking as authorized activities within the boundaries of the natural area, leaving it up to the imagination which activities are banned.

“In theory, this would prohibit breathing, reading a book, skipping, jumping and any number of healthy outdoor pursuits,” said Stackhouse.

The county’s priority is preserving the reservoir. However, bikers and the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority, which is responsible for the reservoir, have found that most outdoor recreational activities will not contaminate the water supply.

In 2016, then-Charlottesville City Manager Maurice Jones requested an opinion from the water authority regarding the impact of such activities on the reservoir’s water quality.

“We would not expect any significant additional water quality impact from recreational uses including dogs, hiking, running or biking on trails around any of our reservoirs,” the authority responded.

The water authority reaffirmed its stance in a March 11 letter to Albemarle County, even stating that it has enhanced its water treatment process since 2016.

Annette Dusenbury, who sits on the board of the Charlottesville Area Mountain Bike Club, said the cycling organization shares the board’s desire to preserve the reservoir, but bikers are not a threat.

“We want to recognize and respect their authority over protecting water supply but encourage them to understand these activities do not impact the water supply in any significance,” Dusenbury told The Daily Progress. “The community is yearning and asking for healthy outdoor activities, especially since COVID, as the desire to be outside has grown even more.”

Despite the assurances from the water authority, the county has not altered its rules. Cycling is prohibited at Ragged Mountain Natural Area.

To ease the blow to the biking community, the county and the city have highlighted the city’s recent acquisition of the Heyward Community Forest, located off Reservoir Road next door to the Ragged Mountain Natural Area, where there are 4 miles of trails open to cyclists.

But cyclists say there is a reason they rode at the Ragged Mountain Natural Area during the legal battle and why they’re petitioning to ride there again.

For Stackhouse, and other Charlottesville-based cyclists, the Ragged Mountain Natural Area is a pedalable distance from the city. They don’t have to load up in a vehicle to travel a half-hour to other county parks while “polluting the area as I sit in traffic trying to get out there,” said Stackhouse, a self-described “aging hippy environmentalist.”

“As we look to the future of climate change, recreation close to home is an important issue,” he said. “Ragged Mountain is the most popular place for mountain biking in all of Albemarle County.”

Stackhouse attributes the popularity of the reservoir to the natural beauty that surrounds it and the beginner-friendly trails that make it accessible to mountain bikers of varying skill levels. The routes through the newly acquired Heyward Forest can be difficult to navigate and require more technical cycling, according to Stackhouse.

Thus, the club’s petition calls for the policies regulating the Ragged Mountain Natural Area’s trails to defer to a 2016 plan that allows a single shared-use trail with all others designated for hikers only. The petition has already received more than 1,200 signatures.

While the cycling community has rallied around the petition, it has faced some opposition.

Several opponents to shared trails have voiced their opinions online, venting on social media platforms such as Reddit about cyclists “riding on wet parts of the trail” and “turning parts of the trail into permanent quagmires.”

The conflict over the Ragged Mountain Natural Area dates back to 2014, when the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority finished construction on a new dam there, replacing two existing dams that were each over 100 years old.

The dam caused the reservoir to flood parts of the surrounding trails, rendering them unusable. The Ivy Creek Foundation, a local nonprofit organization that preserves the neighboring Ivy Creek Natural Area, had also managed the Ragged Mountain area since 1997 but had relinquished its control after the dam was completed.

So, the Charlottesville Area Mountain Bike Club stepped up to restore the trails. Stackhouse, who was a part of those efforts, said the group built roughly a mile of trails and spent thousands of donated dollars and hours to “correct the poorly designed trails from the Ivy Creek Foundation.”

At the same time, the city and club began collaborating on a public meeting process to discuss converting the natural area into shared-use land, and in 2016, the city passed an ordinance allowing both bikers and pedestrians of all speeds to use the trails.

But then, Albemarle County sued. The county claimed the city was overstepping its jurisdiction as the city’s ordinance conflicted with the preexisting county ordinance, which prohibits cycling and horseback riding adjacent to reservoirs that hold drinking water.

The county eventually won the case, but the matter is far from resolved. Albemarle’s board of supervisors has agreed to revisit the issue at its April 3 meeting.

“More than one board member asked that this be considered,” said Andrews, who considers himself to be among the interested parties. “Based on the number of comments we’ve received and the petition, we owe it to our constituents to have this conversation.”

Andrews stressed that though a discussion regarding the current restrictions on activities will be discussed by the board for the first time in several years, bikers and other interested parties should not expect any ordinance changes on April 3.

“If a majority agrees to consider expanding the permitted uses, I imagine that the County Attorney, working with staff, would be directed to bring the matter back to the Board in the near future for consideration of more specific proposals,” said Andrews in a prepared statement.

Any discussion is a step forward for the cyclists.

“We’ve had eight years of using those trails with the success of all users using those trails without any issues that have been brought forward to my knowledge,” said Dusenbury. “We have eight years to show that it works out there.”


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