The city of Charlottesville has so far held nine public meetings on the long-discussed topic of whether Ragged Mountain should remain a natural area or be opened for other uses, such as mountain biking or dog walking. Though a final decision looms, some say public opinion is cut and dried.
A year-old poll taken by Charlottesville Tomorrow showed that 83 percent of voters would prefer to see some shared-use trails on the property. Updated tallies, presented by the Charlottesville Area Mountain Bike Club and Rivanna Trails Foundation member Jon Ciambotti, show that while 84 people at public meetings since November 2014 have spoken out against bicycle usage at Ragged Mountain, 220 have asked the city to let the people ride.
Those numbers, according to the city, include some of the same people who are counted multiple times.
Rachel Thielmann, a mother of three girls on a local mountain biking team, is one of those advocates for shared usage.
“It would be awesome if my kids and I had the opportunity to get over to Ragged Mountain for a quick ride and be home in time to get dinner ready,” she says. “The reality is that nothing exists that fills that need.”
Opponents of shared trails at Ragged Mountain often cite Preddy Creek as a better place to ride, she says, but its Albemarle County location up Route 29 is nearly in Greene County and a 40-minute drive.
“Charlottesville is our community,” she says. “We live and work here, send our kids to school here, pay taxes, shop here and eat here. We are constantly encouraged to think local in our choices and this is an awesome mentality that we support. So why not be able to ride local, too?”
City spokesperson Miriam Dickler says biking is currently allowed in all city parks except for Ragged Mountain and the Ivy Creek Natural Area. But on a map of city parks, Ciambotti points to the three largest green areas: Pen, Darden Towe and McIntire parks, which are dedicated to other uses. At the first, he says a golf course spans across a large chunk of what would be a riding area, sports courts cover the second, and the third will soon be a botanical garden designated as a natural area. So shared-use trails at Ragged Mountain, he and Thielmann agree, are the perfect fix.
Thielmann calls shared-use opponents a “relatively small, but extremely vocal group” who often cite the ecological benefit of only allowing walkers and hikers on the trails. That’s a claim that has “absolutely no scientific support,” she says, because multiple studies have shown that bike tires on trail systems are no more impactful than hiking shoes or boots.
Though former city councilor Dede Smith, who has long advocated for keeping the area around the reservoir natural, did not respond directly to those studies, she says protecting Ragged Mountain is a matter of public health.
“To deliberately remove those protections at a time in our history when this original water supply has again become our only clean water reserve for the future, and when contaminated drinking water is in the news on a daily basis, is simply absurd,” she says. “To do that is comparable to denying climate change.”
As for the public opinion polls, she says the biking community brought large families of bikers to the first few public hearings, while those advocating for maintaining one of only two natural areas in the community “dominated” most of them.
“We’ve been amazed at how this process has not been based on facts,” Ciambotti says. “And how it’s mostly been based on hyperbole, fear and emotions.”
Mountain bikers often get a bad rap, he continues—they’re not all ripping Red Bulls in between backflips on their bicycles. In fact, many have the same overall goal as those who hope to keep the ban on bikes: preservation.
Members of CAMBC—the mountain biking club—are stewards dedicated to building sustainable trails in the city and county, he says. In fact, he estimates that they have already built about three miles of trail at Ragged Mountain in conjunction with the city.
Most of the mileage mountain bikers are proposing to make shared use is on the backside of Ragged Mountain—about an hour-and-a-half hike from the parking lot—leaving a good deal of the most convenient trails to be designated for hikers only. Some trails would remain for walkers only, his group proposes.
And when detailing damage to the environment, Ciambotti says the real factor of human impact is the level of use.
To be considered a natural area, Virginia state parks guidelines require 5 percent or less of the acreage be used for trails. Ragged Mountain, which has 980 acres and about eight miles of trail, is at 1.9 percent, according to Brian Daly, the director of the city’s parks and recreation department.
CAMBC has also offered to enter a memorandum of understanding with the city that would make the group liable for any accidents and require it to maintain the trails—to keep them clean and alert staff of any fallen trees across the path.
At the end of the day, Ciambotti says the argument is about exclusivity and who should be able to enjoy the great outdoors.
“I don’t want to bike on the road next to a garbage truck,” he says. “I want to bike in nature.”
Parks and Recreation Advisory Board members have indicated that they would like to make a recommendation to the Planning Commission and City Council, which will ultimately vote on the matter, at their October 19 meeting.
Updated October 7 at 9:25am with a more accurate headline and to reflect that nine public meetings, instead of nine public hearings, have been held on the potential shared use of Ragged Mountain.
Updated October 11 to note that the numbers of those for and against biking include some of the same people who commented multiple times.