The Footbridge at Fairfax County — Reinventing Democracy

Civil Society, Cultural Intelligence, Earth Intelligence, Ethics, Government
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Click on Image to Enlarge

Three weeks ago the Fairfax County Park Authority destroyed a perfectly good footbridge built by the Miller Heights Neighborhood Association over a decade ago, one of three that enabled hundreds of people and their dogs to walk the full length of the stream trail, with views of running water and birds, including our neighborhood heron, that are priceless.

Today that bridge is being rebuilt by the Park Authority and we have temporarily brought to a half the destruction of all footbridges across the County. The old policy still in force considers footbridges built by citizens (peasants with no standing under the old mind-set) to be encroachments as well as potential safety and legal liabilities.

Below, with photographs, I tell the story of how nineteen citizens, aided by interest from the Boy Scouts of America, were able to get their footbridge back and stop — at least for a time — a very destructive policy. This is a story about re-inventing democracy. How the story ends for the County at large is not yet clear but right this minute, the Chairman (Sharon Bulova), the Park Authority, the Scouts, and our engaged citizens all look good — if this goes as I hope, we will create a new national standard in hybrid governance for stream trails, anchored in a new Scout Trailkeepers Program and perhaps even a new Eagle Scout merit badge, while taking Homeowner Associations (HOA) on a political test drive, focused on substance and divorced from the two-party duopoly that could care less about citizen grass roots rights and concerns.

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Click on Image to Enlarge

At the beginning of November 2014, I came upon this chasm where a very strong footbridge in perfect condition (all treated wood, 2 x 12 supporting lanks, 1 x 6 surface planks) has stood for over a decade, one of three such footbridges built by the Miller Heights Neighborhood Association.

I have been using all three footbridges daily for years, with two great results: it has lowered my chlorestoral to near perfect and it calms the dog down.

[Side Note: PLEASE scoop  the poop — it is the law and there are serious health reasons for doing so, for more information read this: DOG OWNERS.]
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Click on Image to Enlarge

Here is a photo of the other two footbridges, also slated for destruction, that nineteen of us, coming together to write emails to the Chairman of Fairfax County, were able to save.

It was hugely helpful that the Director of the Park Authority, Kirk Kincannon, sent a Division Director, Todd Johnson, to meet me at the site of the wanton destruction. Because he put his feet on the ground, he not only saw the remnants of the destroyed footbridge and understood it was in perfect shape when destroyed, but he also saw  the well-worn but equally sturdy (same design but note the handrail on one of the two). other two bridges, and immediately issued a restraint order, saving them temporarily.

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Here also is a photo of three other footbridges installed by another HOA within a mile of the destroyed footbridge — not shown are another three smaller footbridges within a mile and a half of our three. In order words, this is a County-wide matter in which all of us — all citizens who care about making the stream trails walkable, all HOAs doing their bit to make it so — come together to change how the Park Authority perceives and manages the now “informal” stream trails.  Under the existing regulations, kindly provided to me by the Director of the Park Authority, Kirk Kincannon, all such artifacts are “encroachments” and it is County policy to destroy them, without consultation, when they are found.

Policy 209 – Protection of Lands and Facilities

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Click on Image to Enlarge

The Park Authority focuses on maintaining only the formal trail system. Stream trails, depicted as green dashed lines, are considered informal trails. They are not kept cleared and do not appear to be regularly inspected by the Park Authority. This means that over time, enhancements such as footbridges and horsebridges (the latter generally built professionally with structural engineers engaged) have survived by not being noticed. They are all at risk under the existing policy set forth above.

Fairfax County Trails Plan (PDF)

The above can be printed on any printer by selecting the Poster option, that will print 24 pages that are easily taped together or individually laminated for neighborhood use.

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Click on Image to Enlarge

In fairness to the Park Authority, Difficult Run is a flood plain, Here to the side is just one image of water that was 20 feet deep in some places, with the footbridges in question being underwater. Had they not been brilliantly designed and anchored with rebar driven into the hard earth parallel with the supporting beams, they would have “pooped” long ago and become debris. The Park Authority also has legitimate concerns about legal liability and safety. I am pleased to report that early indications from their insurance expert are that we can fully satisfy those concerns at no cost to the County (i.e. to we the taxpayers).

Our goal is to first create a Scout program that can register, inspect, and keep safe all footbridges and horsebridges while offering to build new ones as Eagle Scout projects; then to mobilize all HOAs adjacent to stream trails, and finally, to prevail with that political power on the Park Authority to change its policy. At the end of this post I provide both a recommended Trailkeepers Merit Badge (hard to get Scouts to create one) or Program (much easier), as well as recommended standards for a common footbridge.

The above can be printed on any printer by selecting the Poster option, that will print 24 pages that are easily taped together or individually laminated for neighborhood use.

My initial assumption, having seen Arnheim Realtors previously violate the law and destroy multiple protected trees in a watershed area simply to improve the “curb appeal” of a house they were selling, was that the realtor associated with a new multi-million dollar home coming on the marketplace was to blame, seeking to eliminate pedestrian traffic from the adjacent land that is under the jurisdiction of the Park Authority.

This fight has just begun. To the credit of Chairman Bulova and her staff — and thanks to compelling cell phone photos, Internet-enabled mobilization, national and local Scout leader interest, and Park Authority recognition that every footbridge is at least ten votes of political capital — we may prevail in changing the existing mind-set and established procedures such that footbridges and horsebridges that comply with agreed-upon standards and are regularly inspected can achieve “protected” status. If we are successful, Fairfax County could be creating a new national standard that can be promulgated for consideration by Chairman Bulova or Park Authority Director Kincannon writing in a national magazine for County and Park management professionals, and by the Boy Scouts and ideally also the Girl Scouts.

Below I provide both recommended standards for a standard footbridge in a flood plain, and a starting point for the Boy Scout Trailkeepers Program or Merit Badge. But first I want to make the observation that this positive outcome — getting our footbridge rebuilt, temporarily halting the destruction of other footbridges, and opening a conversation among County, Scouting, and HOA officials — was achieved by a fraction of those who could have weighed in.  Of the hundreds of citizens who directly benefit from the footbridges, only 19 chose to respond to my posted signs on the trail. Of those, only one engaged with me substantively providing the archly-worded email [WARNING NOTICE ] from the Area 5 Park supervisor that helped us understand how “off” the Park Authority’s mindset is — having the email, along with the photos I took and the bubbling mobilization no doubt also demonstrated to the Chairman the possibility of this becoming a media nightware — the language uses is worthy of a Duke’s henchman lambasting peasants right before he orders them hung. Too many of us chose not to be pro-active on this footbridge, just as too many of us have dropped out of national politics, allowing a two-party duopoly to disenfranchise fully half the voting-age public while making policy based on who receives the taxpayer dollar rather than in favor of the taxpayer themselves. For me this footbridge, the fractional mobilization, the truly great outcome to date, and the possibilities for finding a new third path called Hybrid Governance, are a microcosm of our national political dysfunction and the ease with which we can address that dysfunction.

TO BE CONTINUED