Whitfield: ‘We are in a waiting game. The RappTrails Coalition is strong, we’re not going anywhere’
Frazier: ‘It was always pitched as no cost to the taxpayer ever, always. And that’s not exactly what it is’
The Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors’ 4-1 vote last month to table consideration of the “Schools Connector Trail” may seem to some to close the door on the project designed to link the county’s elementary and high schools.
After all, with its vote the BOS refused to sign a resolution approving documents that would authorize the necessary agreements between the county, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), the PATH Foundation, the Rappahannock-Rapidan Regional Commission (RRRC), and the RappTrails Coalition, the founding organization led by Rappahannock County resident Jane Whitfield.
But while trail opponents have celebrated the board’s vote, it’s not the end of the story. Conversation and planning of the trail, if not its scheduled construction, continues although folks around the county are wondering if the project is indeed dead or alive.
“We are in a waiting game,” says Whitfield, as RappTrails explores options with the county to keep the project alive.
The vote on the trail, conceived as the first leg of a 6-mile multi-use path between Washington and Sperryville, capped nearly three hours of heated public comment from more than 50 county residents. The vote required RappTrails to deliver an irrevocable letter of credit or some other guarantee that taxpayer money will not be used to build the trail.
From the time Whitfield and Cliff Miller IV of Sperryville first proposed the multi use trail at the Planning Commission’s Oct. 2016 meeting, feeling has run high both for and against the project.
Undaunted, Whitfield and Miller assembled a committee of 14 people from around the county dedicated to the mission of creating a trail system in Rappahannock.
In time, the county’s School Board approved a resolution overwhelmingly supporting “the planning, development, and construction of a multi-use trail and authorize such trail to utilize school property as identified” on a preliminary concept plan map.
One month later, after a nearly five-hour public hearing, the BOS approved, in the wee hours of the morning, a resolution to support the trail. The BOS faced an alternately eloquent and indignant crowd of more than 100 — large enough to force the board to move the meeting from an over-capacity courthouse to the high school auditorium.
The BOS action met with angry protests from residents who felt promises not to use taxpayer money had been broken. The opponents pointed to a provision in the resolution requiring the county to provide 20 percent of the project cost.
In June of this year, VDOT’s Commonwealth Transportation Board voted unanimously to allocate $815,871 to cover 80 percent of the proposed budget for the trail. The amount also included a 30 percent contingency of $157,916 for construction costs in an effort to protect against unanticipated expenses. To cover the other 20 percent, RappTrails raised $206,468, surpassing the required amount by $2,500.
In the August 2018 BOS meeting, County Administrator Garrey Curry conducted a preliminary review of School Connector trail grant documents defining proposed legal relationships and obligations of the funders and other partners in the project.
A draft Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) described the project as “a public-private-partnership between Rappahannock, RappTrails, and Rappahannock County Public Schools.” It described the county as the project sponsor and administrator of the VDOT grant, “a reimbursable federal aid funding program for community projects designed to strengthen the transportation system.”
But the MOU and a supporting agreement letter specified that the county “will work collaboratively with the Rappahannock Rapidan Regional Commission (RRRC) for project management, and with RappTrails for securing non-grant project funds.”
The MOU obligated the county to provide 20 percent of the project budget, but the document assigned that responsibility to RappTrails.
The other documents presented included a VDOT administrative agreement, grant agreement from the PATH Foundation, and an agreement letter from the RRRC.
Cost to taxpayers?
Jackson Supervisor Ron Frazier is the leading BOS voice against the trail, as it’s currently proposed. Despite RappTrails’ fundraising efforts and agreements with funders to take on the financial responsibility, Frazier has insisted from the beginning that taxpayer money would be used to pay for the trail.
“It was always pitched as no cost to the taxpayer ever, always,” said Frazier. “And that’s not exactly what it is. At best, it’s a reimbursement program — the county has to pay the bills and then VDOT [reimburses] 80 percent. Supposedly the 20 percent [RappTrails] got from private funds and the PATH grant would slowly trickle down. But somewhere about 30 percent into the program, the county would be using its own local money.”
According to Whitfield, the $206-thousand-plus raised as the 20 percent would be transferred to the county’s bank account shortly after the BOS signs the authorizing documents. That cash — which would accrue interest — would then be immediately available to cover costs during the design and engineering phases.
In describing types of funding methods for projects such as RappTrails, Curry said, “Like-minded citizens that propose a project — RappTrails in our case — [seek] to raise funds to protect the local government from using local dollars for the 20 percent.”
Letter of credit?
It’s unclear where the idea for an irrevocable letter of credit or other surety came from, but it has become the demand of choice among trail opponents.
Under this financial arrangement, RappTrails would be required to supply the entire cost of the project — now estimated at $1.2 million — or equivalently valued property to guarantee that the cost of the trail would not fall to county taxpayers.
Whitfield said, “We made it clear at the BOS meeting that we will not be providing a letter of credit or a surety. However, we have already raised $1.1 million and we believe that to be adequate.”
Trail opponents try to make their case by pointing to an instance in 2008 when the Rappahannock County Schools Sports Association (RCSSA) sought $300,000 in financing to install lights at the county high school athletic field. The county agreed to take on the debt and the RCSSA would pay the county back $30,000 a year. Then almost three years later, the RCSSA defaulted on the loan, and the county agreed to pay the outstanding $220,000.
But that example and the trail financing are not exactly apples to apples, as the county is not assuming any debt for the trail.
Frazier even admits, “Best-case scenario, the county would be reimbursed all the money it spends and the overall result is we wind up with no county funds in it.”
RappTrails estimates that $30,000 will cover the cost of maintaining the trail over the VDOT-estimated life of 15 years. Frazier and others suggest looking at the cost to maintain trails in nearby Fauquier County.
Fauquier’s cost “is about $8,000 dollars a mile,” said Frazier, “and that includes mowing and weed eating and trash pickup and doggie-doo bags and all that.”
Whitfield said she had several conversations with Fauquier’s parks and recreation head, who told her he budgets about $9,000 per mile for trail maintenance.
“However,” said Whitfield, “that is a fully loaded cost that includes administrative costs, wages for full-time people, benefits, etc.”
In an Aug. 6, 2018, memo to administrator Curry, Whitfield explained how RappTrails arrived at its estimate of $30,000 to cover maintenance for the life of the trail. “We did significant research into maintenance,” Whitfield said, citing the Rails to Trails Conservancy, the U.S. Forest Service, and americantrails.org as among her sources.
And, she says, rather than hire full-time maintenance staff, RappTrails will rely on volunteers, such as high school students working to complete community service projects.
Still, Frazier worries about the availability of volunteer labor.
“If the [Rappahannock County] park is having trouble getting volunteers now for projects that aren’t that big, then [RappTrails] won’t find volunteers to take care of this trail,” he said.
Fully thought out?
Frazier also felt that the RappTrails proposal did not follow a recommended path of approval for projects of this type. He outlined a process by which a need is identified by the community and approved by the county and its citizens. Only then does the sponsoring entity look for financing.
“What is the community? Who represents the community as far as identifying need? I would suggest that some citizens in the community saw a need and sought to fill that gap. Whether that [need] is in line with the majority of citizens or the board, that ultimately bears itself out,” said the administrator.
The project MOU spells out potential risks to the county at major phases of the project, as well as ways to mitigate those risks. For example, “if, after engineering and design work, project estimates exceed available funds RappTrails will engage in reasonable and good faith efforts to secure the additional funds that are necessary to satisfy an increased 20 percent local match requirement.” If sufficient funds cannot be raised then the project can be terminated.
Whitfield is sympathetic to citizen concerns.
“We understand the concerns of the residents and supervisors that the $1.2 million will not cover all the costs. But RappTrails is more than willing to go back to the drawing board with the county and with [Curry] to see if we can come up with some other solutions that might even more closely define and narrow the potential risk.”
Piedmont district resident Page Glennie, a retired systems engineer and program manager for the Navy, and an outspoken trail opponent, feels RappTrails has not done enough homework to reassure the county and its citizens.
“RappTrails should have invested in the next level of engineering so that they had answers to the issues raised,” Glennie said. “By not having answers they lost the trust of the community.
“The project should have also gone through the required planning process like any other development project,” he said, including a wetlands assessment by the Department of Environmental Quality, VDOT assessment of the Rock Mills Road crossing, sheriff’s office assessment of security issues, as well as reviews of parking plans and land records. “And there should have been formal public hearings with notification to the adjacent landowners.”
Whitfield and her supporters continue to feel confident that the trail will be built.
“We’re still exploring,” Whitfield said. “I’ll reach out to [Curry] and explore how we can move forward. The RappTrails Coalition is strong, we’re not going anywhere. This trail project is very important to us, but there are a lot of other projects that we can work on in addition to this. . . . There’s more to come from us.”
For now, the ball still appears to be in the BOS court. And bottom line, unless the board subsequently votes to authorize the trail, the county could be extending a RIP to the trail.