RD541 - Dahlgren Railroad Heritage Trail: Suitability as a Recreational Area for Incorporation into Caledon State Park – October 1, 2022
In 2022, the General Assembly of Virginia passed House Bill 30, Item 375 K directing the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) to review the properties of the Dahlgren Railroad Heritage Trail ("DRHT" or "the Trail") and make recommendations on the Trail's suitability as a recreational area for incorporation into Caledon State Park, to preserve the historical trail and enhance Caledon State Park facilities. The language directing the DCR to complete this review also provided a limited time to complete this work, with the final report being due to the Chairs of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance and Appropriations Committees by October 1, 2022.
This study drew upon a site analysis, internal DCR team expertise, and a review of the Trail properties, constraints and other existing conditions that would impact the Trail's suitability as a recreation area for incorporation into Caledon State Park. A needs assessment, based on a review of road crossings and reports developed by the National Park Service (NPS), the George Washington Regional Commission (GWRC), and the Rappahannock Area Health District and Mary Washington Healthcare, was conducted and used to further define transportation and recreation needs identified in the region. Stakeholder outreach included phone and email interviews, a listening session and a mailing to adjacent landowners. An assessment of the market included a review of DRHT permits issued, participation in DRHT events, online reviews of the Trail, and an analysis of the population served within a two-hour drive. To assess local demand for potential user activities at the area or park, including but not limited to camping, hiking, bird watching, equestrian activities, and biking, individuals who have participated in these activities in the past twelve months were mapped by block group. Various management options were explored, including management of the area by a combination of public and private entities.
Table 1, found on numbered page 4 of the report, provides a summary of one-time or ongoing expenses associated with the Trail's acquisition and incorporation into Caledon State Park that DCR would need to consider to operate a multi-use trail along the corridor. The summarized costs are for the operation of the area or park with only those improvements minimally necessary for activities listed herein, consistent with the preservation and protection of the property's conservation values and natural resources and are an estimate only. These costs include resource management and law enforcement to ensure the protection of those resources.
These costs represent what is needed to bring the facility up to standards the public expects from a state park(*1) and includes ongoing (recurring) costs for full-time staff to patrol the trail as well as annual operations including general operations, routine maintenance, wage staff, and resource management activities. These costs represent those that were able to be identified in the limited time provided to complete this report. Additional costs may exist, however additional time may be necessary to research, analyze, and compile this information.
In addition to the costs noted in Table 1, other costs that are not as easy to quantify must be considered. These include opportunity costs related to alternative uses for the corridor, such as a light rail. Other concerns include how park ownership will impact properties bisected by the Trail and its potential to bring additional growth to the area.
Benefits examined for this study include revenues, travel distance, property values, economic impacts, transportation impacts, health care, and quality of life improvements. An example of these benefits highlighted in DCR's research comes from a study of the Potomac Heritage Trail in Northern Virginia, which identified the following:
• Annual reduced morbidity savings of $2.4 million per mile
• Annual avoided health care costs of $390,000 per mile
• Avoided transportation costs of $29,000 per mile
While many of these benefits could be achieved with a trail that is in private or public hands or owned and managed through a public-private partnership, key benefits to ownership by the Commonwealth that this report highlights include: limited liability, improved level of service in the urban crescent, and more staff and maintenance resources for Caledon State Park. Expanded promotion and marketing of the Trail, law enforcement and maintenance would come with additional staff resources. Local zoning ordinances which may limit recreational facility development may also apply differently or not at all to property owned by the Commonwealth.
An important component of this report focused on community outreach. While not required by the language of House Bill 30, Item 375 K, DCR recognizes the importance of stakeholder engagement. While there was a limited timeframe to complete this study, staff utilized various outreach methods, including phone, email, direct mailings, and a listening session. With additional time, staff would have been able to complete additional outreach and listening sessions or other public engagement. Despite the limited timeframe, based on feedback received, it is clear that stakeholders are passionate on both sides of the two-decade-long debate regarding the suitability of the Trail as a recreation area for incorporation into Caledon State Park.
Based on the data collected and analyzed in DCR's review of the properties of the DRHT, including consideration of this trail, which unlike other rail trail options is already partially developed and is proximate to an existing state park; and in evaluating the considerations identified in the legislative language, DCR concluded that the DRHT could be a suitable recreation area for incorporation into Caledon State Park. However, recommendations regarding the advisability of acquiring the property for incorporation into Caledon State Park are beyond the scope of this study. This report identifies the following issues that would need to be resolved prior to any acquisition:
1. Prior to any acquisition, the issues identified below would need to be resolved.
o Identify additional property needed to resolve adjacent property landowner and sight distance concerns and provide adequate parking at trailheads;
o Complete any necessary Trail realignment (for example, needed realignment at Little Ark Baptist Church to avoid bisecting a cemetery);
o Reassemble property rights (i.e., utility easements) severed from parcels of interest; and
o Mitigate any unsafe conditions, such as firearms used toward the trail at a privately owned shooting range and facility.
2. Resolution of outstanding issues would require+ investment of additional staff time and resources, and would need to be adequately planned for in advance; and
3. Any outstanding stakeholder feedback should be reviewed and, where appropriate, considered in the decision-making process for the future of the Trail. Addressing these issues would enable DCR to better understand and plan for how complex issues surrounding land acquisitions, easements, relationships with adjacent property landowners, and one-time and ongoing (recurring) costs would be handled should the DRHT become a part of Caledon State Park.
In doing so, it would also better position DCR to take actions to preserve the historical trail and enhance Caledon State Park facilities, the Trail, and recreational opportunities for citizens of King George County and visitors to Caledon State Park, should it be determined that it become a part of the park and under the management of the DCR.