Chevy Chase | News

More than 1,000 sign petition opposing reopening Little Falls Parkway on weekends to vehicles

Parkway had been limited to pedestrians, bicyclists as a recreation option

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Montgomery County residents walk, run and bike on Little Falls Parkway during the summer, when it was closed to motor vehicles each weekend to provide more space for recreation.

Submitted photo

This story was updated at 12:12 p.m. on Dec 5, 2020, to clarify that nursery, elementary and middle school students are dropped off and picked up from Washington Episcopal School.

News that Little Falls Parkway would no longer be limited to pedestrians and bicyclists on the weekends is drawing opposition. In about a week, an online petition opposing the change amassed about 1,000 signatures.

The stretch of the parkway between Massachusetts Avenue and Arlington Road had been closed to traffic on weekends since April as part of the county’s Open Parkways initiative.

The initiative offered additional space for socially distanced recreation and exercise during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, it lessened foot traffic on the county’s nearby Capital Crescent Trail.

Between early April and Labor Day, each weekend — from Friday at 9 a.m. until Sunday at 6 p.m. — part of the parkway was closed to vehicles and opened to pedestrians. Since Labor Day, the parkway has opened to vehicles on Friday to help accommodate drop-off and pick-up at Washington Episcopal School.

That weekly closure is ending this week. As of Saturday, Little Falls Parkway will reopen to motor vehicles and close for pedestrians and bicyclists, Montgomery Parks announced on Nov. 18.

Trails Master Planner and Trails Program Supervisor Darren Flusche said the change was largely due to logistics and staff capacity. With county COVID-19 numbers on the rise, the Operations Crew and Park Police now only have two-thirds of the usual number of people working at once to allow for social distancing.

The department decided that closing Little Falls Parkway to motor vehicles made too many demands on the staff, he said.

Little Falls Parkway is a four-lane parkway and does not have built-in gates, so the staff would bring out weighted barrels and connect them with caution tape to make the barriers.

“It’s not something that we want to do,” he said about the decision to reopen Little Falls Parkway to motor vehicles. “We always want to hear from folks and we appreciate the outpouring that we’ve heard over the past few weeks.”

Residents who reacted against the change say the open parkway allowed them space to exercise and safely gather amidst the pandemic. People have sent emails and called the department to express their opposition to the new development.

The petition calls on Montgomery Parks to keep the parkway open and to provide opportunities for community feedback on the Open Parkways initiative. Particularly, it asks that the department hold ongoing virtual community town hall meetings for residents to offer recommendations and testimony on the initiative.

Chevy Chase resident Matthew Zaft said he and numerous others offered to set up and take down barriers. Additionally, he and other parents would contribute to a fund to pay employees to set up and dismantle the barriers.

“There is no reason this should be a labor or cost issue whatsoever,” Zaft said. “This is a clear case of they’re just not listening to the people, and they’re not listening to the majority.”

Flusche said he appreciated that people wanted the parkway to open for walkers, but cited logistic and liability issues with having volunteers close the parkway to motor vehicles.

“It’s a really encouraging thing to hear that people are talking about that,” Flusche said. “But I don’t think that would work from a practical standpoint.”

Chevy Chase resident Amy Wrona said she wished the county would “think outside of the box,” and maybe close the parkway a few hours later if there weren’t enough staff to do all the projects at once.

Both Zaft and Wrona have children who have used the parkway to meet up with friends and safely spend time outside during the pandemic.

Zaft, who signed the petition, has two daughters who go to the parkway every Saturday and Sunday. His daughter in eighth grade walks with her friends. His daughter in fifth grade meets up with her friends for socially distanced walks and bike rides.

“It’s been really tough not being able to see their friends,” Zaft said. “To be able to get together is really key, from a mental aspect.”

He doesn’t feel safe letting his younger daughter ride her bike on Little Falls Parkway if there are cars, and she can’t text or video chat with her friends from home and keep up contact that way.

“It’s been a lifesaver for us as parents because the kids have a really safe way to socially distance,” Wrona said. “Even my youngest, who’s 10 years old, I’m confident that he’s having both a good time and staying safe.”

Wrona says she and her family go out to the parkway two or three times each day on the weekends. She runs, her husband bikes, and their kids walk and bike with friends.

The parkway has become a popular option for people hoping to avoid crowds on the Capital Crescent Trail.

Flusche said sensors detected about 147,000 visits to Little Falls Parkway since April, but that was only an approximate number. The number of people peaked in May. Now, 10,000 to 15,000 people go to Little Falls Parkway each month.

In March, as the COVID-19 pandemic started, the county noticed increased traffic along many of its trails. On April 3, the department first shut part of Sligo Creek Parkway. It closed a second section a week later. On April 17, it closed Little Falls Parkway and Beach Drive.

“We were really proud of that fast response,” Flusche said.

The two other parkways included in the county’s initiative will remain open to pedestrians throughout the winter, but will close two hours earlier, on Sundays at 4 p.m. The other parkways have built-in gates and are only two-lane parkways.

Flusche explained that to close the other parkways, staff members make sure no cars are on the paths before closing the built-in gates. The difference in time to close these parkways and Little Falls is “considerable,” Flusche said.

Still, some residents are at a loss for how they will safely move around outside this winter. With the COVID-19 case count going up, gyms closing, and the National Weather Service predicting a mild winter, Wrona said she thinks people would continue to use Little Falls Parkway. She doesn’t feel safe on the Capital Crescent Trail, given the heavy crowds with the pandemic.

A few weeks ago, she watched a little girl learn to ride her bike on Little Falls Parkway. Because the street is so wide open, there’s space to do that, she said — it likely would not be possible on the Capital Crescent Trail.

Tracey Johnstone, a Chevy Chase resident and board member of Action Committee for Transit, also said she doesn’t feel comfortable running on a crowded trail. She hopes for a more permanent fix, like the addition of sidewalks and street lights to Little Falls Parkway.

“The Capital Crescent Trail was not wide enough to handle the traffic it had 10 years ago, so it certainly can’t handle it now, and it can’t handle it during a pandemic when more people want to get out,” she said.

Montgomery Parks will continue to monitor the number of people that go to the Capital Crescent Trail, Flusche said. That number — as well as how many people use the other two parkways and whether public health conditions improve — will help determine when Little Falls Parkway might again close to motor vehicles in the spring.

It will also depend on the community response. It’s important for people to continue contacting the department, Flusche said.

The department has heard from people on both sides of the issue, he said, but the majority have supported closing the parkways to motor vehicles. Fewer people have opposed the traffic detours.

Zaft said the street he lives on gets more traffic as rerouted cars cut through because of the closure, but he said it is a small price to pay for his kids having space to safely meet up with their friends.