Neighborhood Takes Sides on Sidewalk Talk

Neighborhood Takes Sides on Sidewalk Talk

Stretch of walkway proposed along Hunter Mill Road proves contentious.

A proposed stretch of walkway along the east side of Hunter Mill Road, just north of Chain Bridge Road, is by no means the largest change in the works for the heart of Oakton, but that has not stopped it from sparking its own controversy.

The walkway, if constructed, would run next to the Chevy Chase Bank that is about to replace the former Appalachian Outfitters buildings, across from the Oakton Library to be constructed this year, and, to the north, past the Oakton Park that is about to begin construction and has been proposed as a possible starting point for future traffic calming measures on Hunter Mill Road.

The bank is charged with installing a sidewalk, curb and gutter along the property that it is acquiring, and the Fairfax County Park Authority will be responsible for the stretch that runs along its property to Lewis Knolls Drive, where the walk will end.

For the stretch between the bank and the park, $325,000 has been set aside from the 2004 transportation bond referendum to create a six-foot-wide asphalt footpath, which would take a bite out of three residential properties. Asphalt is being proposed because the cost of a sidewalk, which would have to be accompanied by a curb and gutter, would likely be prohibitive. A cost estimate for the project has not yet been reached, as it is still unknown how much may be spent on relocating utilities.

Last Wednesday, May 31, was the third meeting between the county and neighborhood residents on this subject, and no agreement was reached. However, the project has already been approved by the Board of Supervisors.

Larry Ichter, chief of the Transportation and Design branch of the county's Department of Public Works, said he expected the plats for the project to be drawn up in a month or two, the land rights to have been acquired from property owners within seven months after that and the project to be put out to bid by next summer.

SOME RESIDENTS, however, hinted that land rights may not be acquired so easily.

By the latest standards of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), an asphalt walkway without curb and gutter is to lie at least 10 feet from the road. An exception is being made, allowing this walkway to be laid six feet off, which still leaves its far edge at least 12 feet from the side of Hunter Mill. This would put it past the county's right-of-way and onto residential property and would necessitate the removal of at least some residents' trees.

The idea is that the sidewalk would allow pedestrian access to the future park.

"The whole process is premature," said Nan Coleman, friend of an owner of one of the residential properties in question, echoing the sentiments of some other attendees. She noted that there is a sidewalk on the other side of Hunter Mill Road and a crosswalk proposed at the park and that a full cost estimate is yet to be calculated, while residents are still fighting to keep Hunter Mill Road from being widened south of Vale Road. It is also unknown whether a roundabout will be placed at the entrance to the park. "What's the problem with waiting until the park is done?" she asked.

Providence District Supervisor Linda Smyth, who was also present, assured that there would be room for a roundabout without interfering with the sidewalk.

Keith Walker, who would lose a slice of his back yard, asked why Smyth could not designate the entire length of Hunter Mill Road a two-lane road and then hold out for additional money for sidewalk, curb and gutter, which would keep the walkway as far from residential properties as possible and guarantee that it would not be torn up later for road-widening. "We all love sidewalks," he said. "I love sidewalks, but if you're going to do it, do it right."

"I cannot support two lanes all the way," said Smyth, noting that the south end of Hunter Mill is "already a four-lane configuration, and VDOT already owns it. It's sort of a matter of that being kind of an empty gesture."

As for requesting money for a sidewalk, "there is concern as to what that might trigger," said Smyth, indicating that VDOT might take that opportunity to widen the road to the most lanes allowable by the Comprehensive Plan.

RESIDENTS ALSO expressed concern over the view from their house and a drop in their property value.

"I don't think we've got an easy way to get this done and keep it completely off someone's property," said Ichter.

The crowd was told that the county can take the property from residents through the process of "slow-take" eminent domain, which would take between one and three years.

Coleman asked why the county would prefer to pursue such a lengthy process than to put off making a decision.

Steve Still, who lives north of the area in question, said he considered walking along Hunter Mill to be dangerous and supported the installation of a walkway. "The faster you can move, the better," he told county officials.

Dave Seager, who also lives to the north on Hunter Mill, agreed.

If the project is canceled or put on any sort of indefinite hold, the funding will be lost, said Ichter. Barring that, there is an eight-year window to use the money, although any litigation costs resulting from property disputes would come from the fund.

"Is there any grass-roots action that can be taken to stall the project?" asked Coleman.

"I think it might meet with opposing grass-roots action to get it done," Smyth responded.

"You start yours, I'll start mine," volunteered Still. As for the question of property value, he said, "I think the park's going to help all our properties."

The date for the next community meeting on the walkway will be set in September. Until then, the county will be meeting privately with individuals who have a stake in the process.