Matthew Henson Trail construction takes political turn
Jan. 8, 2003
Effie Bathen
Staff Writer

Del. Henry B. "Hank" Heller has drafted legislation that would allow the state to give seven key parcels of land to the county for constructing the proposed Matthew Henson Hiker-Biker Trail.

The action is adding fire to the debate over the proposed five-mile paved trail that would run between Aspen Hill and Layhill.

Heller's proposal would secure a total of 37 acres of land for the trail, said Marian Elsasser, a landscape architect for the project.

They include five acres south of Global Mission Church near Georgia and Hewitt avenues, about 21 acres on the west side of Northwest Branch Stream Valley Park and almost nine acres north of Faith Baptist Community Church on Layhill Road. Another two acres lies west of Layhill Road.

The paved trail is included in County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's $1 billion Go Montgomery transportation plan and is considered "something that is a priority for him," said county spokeswoman Esther Bowring. The county executive is expected to announce details of his Fiscal Year 2004 capital recommendations Monday, she said.

The proposed eight-foot-wide hard-surface trail is planned for construction in three phases. Phases 1 and 2 are located in Matthew Henson State Park and Phase 3 is within the Matthew Henson Greenway. Both run along a former right-of-way for a multi-lane highway once called the Rockville Facility.

The Henson Trail proposal came about as part of the Countywide Park Trails Plan adopted by the Planning Board in 1998.

Cost estimates for the trail are about $1 million per mile, similar to the popular Capital Crescent Trail project in Chevy Chase.

Blocking the outer Beltway

In 1989 then-State Sen. Idamae Garrott, Heller and other lawmakers worked to declare the Rockville Facility a state park. The aim was to block construction of a multi-lane highway, or so-called "outer Beltway."

"People who do not remember how we fought to reduce the right-of-way from a four- or six-lane highway down to a bicycle path better wake up," Heller (D-Dist. 19) said.

As recently as last February, state delegates continued to debate whether to extend a proposed multi-lane Montrose Parkway through the old right-of-way.

That parkway project is funded and approved to run roughly parallel to Montrose Road from Interstate 270 eastward to Rockville Pike.

Last year's bills authored by former Del. Richard A. LaVay (R-Dist 15) of Olney would have removed state funding restrictions in the right-of-way and re-opened the way for a possible "outer Beltway. They were defeated.

Sen. Jennie Forehand (D-Dist. 17) of Rockville has also drafted legislation that would allow the state to use transportation funds to build a road in the Rockville Facility right-of-way. She said her bill would not affect Matthew Henson Park, greenway or proposed trail.

However, Heller insists that unless Forehand's bill specifies the exclusion, it opens the way for a highway in the green space.

The 1994 Aspen Hill Master Plan recommends that the right-of-way be a public park and greenway, or natural area, with a paved hiker-biker trail. Still, the proposed trail is opposed by some community groups.

In a Dec. 10 letter to Heller, the Aspen Hill Civic Association and the Strathmore-Bel Pre Civic Association asked that he withdraw his bill.

The presidents of those civic groups, representing 6,800 households, wrote that they were "strongly opposed to any trail through the Matthew Henson State Park and Greenway."

In mid-December, Arlene Thorne represented those two civic groups at a meeting with state delegates.

She said Monday that she would support Heller's legislation if he would specify that the trail be "unpaved," because it would be better for the environment.

Opponents say that in addition to environmental concerns, they worry that the trail would draw crime to their area.

Supporters of the trail argue that they would like to have easy access to the Rock Creek Park and trail system. They also consider the addition of the trail as an amenity that would increase their property values.