Group working on master plan for local walking trails

August 3, 2005

Bulletin Staff Writer

With last week's congressional approval of $400,000 for a trails project in Henry County, organizers are faced with developing a long-range plan to get the most bang for their bucks.

The Martinsville-Henry County Rivers and Trails Group has been working on a trail project since April. Its plans could include river trails with links to rail trails and other sites, according to Benny Summerlin, Henry County administrator and a member of the group.

However, the group was taken by surprise by last week's announcement that a $400,000 grant had been awarded to develop a rail trail along the abandoned Norfolk Southern Railway in Henry County, according to Summerlin and Kay Slaughter of the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). That was because officials had said no federal funds were available for local projects, she said.

Now, she and Summerlin said, they need to devise a master plan that incorporates a planned "demonstration trail" along with other possible river and/or rail trails.

Loosely interpreted, the master plan will include trails that follow close to rivers, provide access points and have the potential to connect with other sites, Slaughter said. "The big thing we have to do now is (create) a master plan to put it all together."

The finished product will include a timetable of goals in five-year increments, she said. "Then (when the master plan is completed), we'll be able to work on that in a systematic way."

About a year ago, The Harvest Foundation and the Public Welfare Foundation each paid $50,000 to Slaughter's organization to commission a study that would determine how to best enhance the area's natural resources.
Results of that study were released in October, Slaughter said, and the 15-member ad hoc committee called the Martinsville-Henry County Rivers and Trails Group was formed. It has been meeting monthly since April, working to devise a plan to use natural resources to best benefit residents, and existing and new businesses, while attracting visitors to the area.

Since then, group members have had "all kinds of ideas" on how to best use the area's resources, according to Summerlin. "Now, we have to figure out how to connect everything, but right now, we're not down to that level of detail" in the master plan, he added.

Both Slaughter and Summerlin say the master plan includes a "demonstration trail," which will be a one- to two-mile segment of a river trail. This portion of the trail, along the Smith River, will begin near the Iron Bridge in Fieldale and stop just past the Henry County Public Service Authority's treatment plant.
The route of this trail does not follow a former railway and is located on the opposite side of the river from the Norfolk Southern Railways tracks.

Since the federal funds were not in place when the committee first started working on the project, its members used available resources and only considered areas for the trail that already had rights of way, Slaughter said. Also, they applied for and received a grant from the Virginia Department of Forestry.

Those funds are being used for the planning phase of the demonstration trail, Slaughter said.

Currently, there are no plans to tap the recent $400,000 federal grant for work on the demonstration trail. Before the federal funds were approved, committee members also applied for grants from The Harvest Foundation and the Public Welfare Foundation to pay for continued technical assistance, a staff person to help implement the committee's plans, and development of the demonstration trail and river access points.

Slaughter would not disclose the amount of funds requested since the applications are pending.? In the interim, group members are looking at continued development of a river trail along the Smith and possibly portions of the Mayo River.
However, a second option is gaining favor.

Called a "rail trail," Summerlin said the idea is to turn unused portions of railways into walking trails and possibly provide links to other sites, such as the city's walking trail and visitor's center.

When announcing the federal funding Saturday, U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Abingdon, said the federal funds may be used to pay for railway rights of way and construction of the first phase of the trail.

Summerlin said group members met with Norfolk Southern Railway officials last week to discuss the possibility of buying rights of way and developing a trail along an unused section of the Dick & Willie rail line.
"We had a really good meeting with Norfolk Southern," he added.

The portion of rail line of particular interest begins in Fieldale and follows the Smith River, extending to the Koehler area before angling in front of Wal-Mart. It crosses under U.S. 220 near Commonwealth, goes to Jones Creek on Liberty Street, then parallels Northside Drive behind the Commonwealth Center (formerly Tultex Corp.). The trail would then extend behind the Martinsville Rescue Squad, go near Southern Finishing then under East Church Street. After passing East Church Street, the trail would go by Prillaman Chemical and the city shop on Fishel Street as it heads out of the city, he said.

That route is about 6.8 miles, Summerlin said.

With portions of that proposed trail passing dilapidated buildings or unused factories, "we're not just trying to go through the most beautiful areas," Slaughter said.

That's because, she said, nationwide, trails projects have sparked revitalization. Until that revitalization occurs, a natural buffer can be effectively used to camouflage some views.

Organizers also may include information kiosks along the trail to mark certain areas of interest or impart historical information.

For instance, Slaughter said information about Indian fisheries -- places along the river where Native Americans used rocks to create a narrow passage and trap fish -- would be interesting to visitors walking the trail.
Although Summerlin is quick to add that the committee's plans have not been finalized, mainly because there were no funds until the recent federal grant, "we've done a lot of planning and made a lot of wish lists."

"There was no sense of urgency," he said. Now, however, "the timing is perfect for a lot of this stuff to come together."

Regardless of the final master plan, Slaughter said it is important to note that "this is a long-term project. We will not get it all done in five years." The federal funding, however, "is a great kickoff."


Select News Year: