Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

Coalition gaining ground in fight for Army-owned trail

Neighborhood lobbies for continued access to wooded paths near area planned for Walter Reed construction

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Naomi Brookner/The Gazette
Barbara Schubert of Silver Spring walks her dog, Rocky, along a bridge near her home that was recently repaired as part of the Carriage Trail. Residents in the area who use the trail consider the repairs an important victory in preservation efforts for the trail that crosses onto Army-owned land.\

Silver Spring resident Barbara Schubert's backyard leads down a wooded hill and toward a quiet, secluded trail where every day she walks her Yorkshire terrier, Rocky, and encounters a handful of neighbors from the Forest Glen area as they jog, bike or walk their dogs.

Ireland Drive, or the Carriage Trail, as it is known, dates back to the 1770s, when it was used for rolling tobacco down from a nearby plantation to Rock Creek. Today, it sits a stone's throw away from Georgia Avenue and the Capital Beltway, but a traveler along its quiet dirt, gravel and pavement paths could easily imagine being miles away from any urban center.

"I always like to come out at the times of the day when I won't encounter anyone and just act like it's my forest," Schubert said on a recent morning walk.

But at the trail's edge lies a potential hurdle to the unlimited access Schubert and her neighbors now enjoy: a barbed wire security fence that protects the nearby Walter Reed Army Medical Center Forest Glen annex.

About 15 to 20 acres of the trail property is owned by the United States Army, which has announced plans to close some of the trail in 2011 and expand its fences in order to accommodate new construction, including a five-story, 140,000-square-foot infectious disease research laboratory.

Worried that they might one day lose their public access to the trail, a group of residents have formed the Save the Trail Coalition. With support from the county parks department and U.S. Rep. Christopher Van Hollen, Jr. (D-Dist. 8) of Kensington, the group has begun to lobby for the trail to be turned over to Montgomery County through a transfer, in which the Army would give up ownership, or an easement, in which the Army might retain ownership but guarantee residents the right to enter and use the land.

"We're going to be working with the Army to see if we can get an outright transfer or an easement that would guarantee public use and access," said Van Hollen, who has occasionally biked the trail himself. "We're working with them on that. I would certainly support [a transfer]. Montgomery County has to be willing to take on those responsibilities."

Dominic Quattrocchi, a senior planner with the county parks department, said county park officials have been interested in gaining ownership of the land for several years, saying they consider any opportunity to increase open park acreage in the downcounty area. The county Planning Board has recommended an outright transfer of the nearly 3,700-linear-foot trail, and also included Ireland Drive as a Legacy Open Space site, a county initiative to expand and protect historical acreage, saying it could serve as an important connector between Rock Creek Park, the Capital Crescent Trail and the Sligo Creek Trail.

"The trail needs to be maintained and needs to provide some connectivity to some other trail systems," Quattrocchi said. "There's a lot of nice wooded acreage next to Rock Creek Park, and it would be nice to take ownership of some of that area."

Proponents of transferring the trail won a small victory earlier this summer, when the Army agreed to repair one of the five bridges along the trail. Residents and officials plan to thank the Army during a Sept. 10 ceremony.

Thomas Cuddy, head of community relations for the Army at Walter Reed, said the center has tried to be understanding of the community's concerns, which is one of the reasons it repaired the bridge.

"We are stewards for this land, and we try to be good stewards of this land," he said. "We have property that we're responsible for, and we're taking care of it within the best means of our resources, and this was within our means and we took care of it."

Schubert said the Army has been "neighborly" in their relations with the community, especially with the bridge repair.

But the Army has needs of its own. The research laboratory planned for 2011 is designed to absorb a retrovirology center slated to move from Rockville as part of the Defense Department's 2005 Base Realignment and Closure plan.

Dave Foster, an Army spokesman, said in a statement that the Army has been in negotiations with the county to grant an easement and will continue to pursue an agreement.

"They've been cooperating with us and we're very appreciative of the efforts they made," Van Hollen said. "We're going to continue to work with them to make sure the community has permanent access to the trails and the areas around it."