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Piedmont Environmental Council saving open space in city

fifeville Trail.jpg
The Fifeville trail connects Charlottesville residents to Tonsler Park and shopping

Fifth Street was once a quiet lane used by locals to reach Tonsler Park, but in the 60’s Charlottesville straightened and widened the road, and walking on Fifth became a dangerous proposition. It’s better now that the city has installed sidewalks, but Dorenda Johnson – who has lived in the area for more than 50 years – says parents didn’t want their kids going near what is, in essence, a four-lane highway.

“You could not walk on it at all," she explains. "There was no sidewalk, and it was narrow, and that traffic has gotten to be really busy, so it’s still kind of risky down there.”

Dorenda Johnson
Long-time Fifeville resident Dorinda Johnson remembers the original woodland trail from her neighborhood to the park.

So residents found a solution – taking a shortcut through some privately-owned wooded land, over a creek, up and down hills to Cherry Street, a local shopping district, and to Tonsler Park.

“There was no car in my household," Johnson recalls. "We always walked, and we would walk through those woods, and you didn’t have to worry.”

In the 80’s, no trespassing signs went up and fences blocked the path. Residents wanted it back, and today they’ve got it thanks, in part, to the Piedmont Environmental Council. That group has worked to get more than 430,000 acres of land in nine Virginia counties into conservation easement according to advocacy manager Peter Krebs.

“A lot of the work that we do normally is large landscapes on the edge of town or out in rural areas. This project does all of the things that we’re trying to do, but it’s right where people live. It’s my favorite kind of nature – the kind that you don’t have to drive to get to.”

Krebs helped residents of Fifeville get a grant of nearly $25,000 from the Virginia Outdoors Foundation to rebuild their trail.

Peter Krebs
The Piedmont Environmental Council's Peter Krebs loves natural areas you can reach without a car.

“The neighborhood has put a huge amount of sweat equity into it. It really started with some of the neighborhood residents coming through with machetes," he says. "What they don’t have is a backhoe, so they were able to hire a contractor to actually dig out certain parts where digging was needed, to lay down mulch and to bring in technical expertise.”

A mosque, a church group and a boy scout troop have also offered assistance, and the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation provided seed money to get things started. The land owner, Anthony Woodard, may still build on the property, but for now he’s leasing part of it to the Rivanna Trails Foundation for one dollar a year.

“This land may eventually be redeveloped," Krevs says. "The exact pathway may change, but he’s agreed to maintain the connectivity that the trail is creating. Access to the park, access to nature add value, because they make the community better.”

Already, children’s art decorates the trail, and there may soon be historical markers.

“I’m just going to pause real quick to note that we’re walking across some bricks," Krebs says. "There was an old brick factory right where we’re standing.”

It was there, in part, because this land is rich in clay – and for that reason, it’s not necessary to pave the trail. The earth is already packed down, so it’s easy walking.

Community residents and organizers have postponed a block party planned to officially open the trail due to this weekend’s wet forecast, but Dorenda Johnson says the celebration will, eventually, take place

“I am glad that they are making it so that folks can enjoy it, but I have to say I don’t know who really will be using that trail. You know everything has changed so much. Kids have changed so much. They barely come outside.”

But Krebs is confident that, having rebuilt the trail, kids and adults will come.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief