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Craig Botetourt Scenic Trail meetings draw both fears and fans

The proposed trail is one of five priority trail projects identified by state officials. It would run for 26 miles on a former rail bed. Proponents say it will help the local economy, while opponents have raised concerns about safety and maintenance.

October 2023

People at the Eagle Rock hearing study some of the maps. (Photo by Mark Taylor)

by Mark Taylor, Cardinal News

Looking at a satellite image of Oriskany, Lewis Hopkins found his home. Then he found something else: a label that read “Potential Trail Gate.”

“That’s at the base of my driveway,” he said with a tone of exasperation. “How am I supposed to get to my house?”

Hopkins was among nearly 200 people who attended a public information session at Eagle Rock Elementary School on Sept. 20 on a proposed rail-trail through the Craig Creek corridor between Eagle Rock in Botetourt County to New Castle in Craig County.

The proposed trail would generally follow Craig Creek, which starts in Craig County and eventually flows through Botetourt County into the James River just north of Eagle Rock. (Map by Robert Lunsford)

The proposed trail is one of five priority trail projects identified by state officials. It would run for 26 miles on a former rail bed donated to VDOT in the early 1960s after the rail line was abandoned.

Roughly 9 miles of the route are on secondary roads that would remain open to traffic. The other sections would likely be gated to keep unauthorized vehicles out but open for hikers, runners, cyclists and equestrians. The non-secondary road surface would be natural, not paved.

State officials earlier earmarked $1 million for a project feasibility study, including engineering. The recent budget amendments passed by Virginia’s General Assembly included $12.5 million for actual work on the trail.

A total cost and a timeline for potential construction to begin hasn’t been announced.

As state-owned property, the trail route is already technically open to the public. Formalizing the route would include adding designated trailheads, resurfacing the trail bed along much of the route, adding gates to eliminate unauthorized vehicle travel from some sections, and working on existing bridges to ensure they are sound and safe.

Trail supporters and opponents both showed up in force, with VDOT officials saying 185 people signed in. By comparison, a VDOT meeting the previous night to discuss a $479 million project to widen Interstate 81 between Daleville and Interstate 581 drew 152 attendees.

At the trail meeting, some opponents were deliberately visible, many of them wearing neon green T-shirts emblazoned with their rallying cry: “DeRail the Trail.”

A closer view of the proposed trail through the Oriskany section of Botetourt County, where opposition has been loudest. (Courtesy of VDOT)

While VDOT had set up a display of maps of the entire trail corridor inside Eagle Rock Elementary School, the DeRail the Trail group had set up its own tents and display placards outside the school.

There was no formal presentation at the meeting, an approach VDOT spokesman Jason Bond said is common for informational meetings, which provide an opportunity for citizens to not only comment on proposed projects but also to ask questions.

“We’re here to listen,” Bond said.

About a dozen people with VDOT nametags milled among people looking at the maps and filling out feedback forms handed out to all attendees. Bond said comments will all be read and tallied.

Comments were also being accepted online, and via traditional mail. The comment deadline was Oct. 1.

Lewis Hopkins, left, talks with Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County (right), at the Eagle Rock hearing. (Photo by Mark Taylor)

One of those doing more than his share of listening — and offering his views in return — was Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County, whose district includes the Botetourt section of the trail. Austin supports the project, believing it will not only create direct economic impact for communities along the route, but will have quality of life value for area residents.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people who want to see the trail developed and see the benefit and value of it,” Austin said. “I’ve had people ask me to define the economic value. I tell them, as an example, that my wife and I came over one Sunday to ride the trail with some friends. We went into New Castle — and we had no reason to be in New Castle that day — and we saw a little mercantile and I spent $70 there. My friend also spent money. Had we not come to New Castle to look at the trail, we wouldn’t have spent that money.

“I’ve ridden several of these trails around the state and I just think they create opportunity.”

Richard Amstutz was among trail supporters. He lives off Craig Creek Road between Eagle Rock and Oriskany. He said he frequently rides along the section of the proposed trail route that runs along Ballpark Road.

“We can ride all the way to Craig Creek,” Amstutz said. “There’s nobody out there. During hunting season you’ll see guys out in trucks but rarely do we see anybody.”

His son Caleb, a 26-year-old teacher at Community School in Roanoke, said he also enjoys the trail route.

“It’s stunning,” he said. “In late spring there are so many wildflowers. Sometimes I go out just for that.”

Austin said that some details are still being worked out, including maintenance responsibilities. One potential scenario, he said, is that counties — likely parks and recreation departments — would handle maintenance of the trail while VDOT would oversee the bridges.

Jim Stadtlander, a member of the DeRail the Trail group, has property along the proposed route. He said safety is a concern.

The tent set up by the DeRail The Trail group at the Eagle Rock meeting. (Photo by Mark Taylor)

“If you’re going to spend $12.5 million — and it’s not going to stop there — you’re going to want people to use it,” he said. “When you change the use of that road, at what point is it not safe?”

In an online FAQ, VDOT notes that sections where the trail would be shared use with vehicles are considered “low volume,” some with average daily use of just a few dozen vehicles.

Some opponents noted that a section of the trail that runs parallel to Craig Creek Road (Virginia 615) is sometimes used by Oriskany residents when high water floods the road, which is at a slightly lower elevation than the trail bed.

Todd Price, who runs the post office in Oriskany, said that section of the rail bed is also used by hunters to access adjacent national forest land. They would not be able to drive into the area if the trail is gated, as proposed, Price said.

“You’ve got guys whose dads took them hunting there 30 years ago, so that’s where they want to hunt,” Price said. “In hunting season you’ll see that section of road packed with cars.”

Hunters could still potentially park along Craig Creek Road, or walk the trail or ride a bicycle to access national forest land. Price contended that hunter use could lead to other issues, such as a non-hunting trail user being offended when encountering a successful hunter with dead game.

Frank Maguire, greenway coordinator for the Roanoke Valley Greenway Commission, said many of the arguments he hears against the trail are similar to those he heard at his previous job working on trail projects in Pennsylvania.

“As far as the fears, it’s what I’ve been hearing for years,” said Maguire, who added that he understands how residents could be uncertain and concerned about change. “The opportunity to do 26 miles point-to-point is unique and this is an opportunity to make a positive [community] impact.”

Uncertainty is one of the things that gnaws at Price.

“They want to bring development and growth, and I get that,” Price said. “What we’re suffering from is a lack of details. More than anything, we want answers.”

If there was one certainty to come out of the Sept. 20 meeting, it was that the trail will not preclude residents from driving to and from their properties.

“There are property owners who use [the trail right-of-way] to access their property,” Bond, the VDOT spokesman, said. “We don’t know how that happened, but they will be able to continue to access their property.”

Mark Taylor is Trout Unlimited’s Eastern Communications Director. Based in Roanoke, he is also a freelance writer and editor.

This article comes from Cardinal News, an online nonprofit news agency based in Southwest Virginia.