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If you have followed the Coalition over the past several years, you have heard a lot about our desire to #ConnectOurSchools for walking and biking. We believe that everyone should have the freedom to choose whether to safely and conveniently walk or bike to their daily destinations. This is especially important for our schools and ties into the Safe Routes to School programs that exist in our region.

Walking or biking to school was once the norm but has largely disappeared because of deliberate decisions to build our transportation system almost exclusively around automobiles. While we were busy building roads that cost tens of millions of dollars, we too often failed to incorporate essential components to ensure the roads work for all users and not just those people who choose to drive. These missing pieces were sometimes sidewalks, bike lanes, safe intersections, or even greenways and shared-use paths.

In some cases, the property where we develop our trip generating buildings woefully ignores sensible planning to allow for walking and biking. Often buildings are constructed too far away from where the majority of people live or are developed on property that lacks safe and convenient access for walking and biking.

In the case of the current Harrisonburg High School, students have neither a safe nor convenient way to walk or bike to school. In 2005 the current Harrisonburg High School was built along Garbers Church Road moving the City of Harrisonburg’s single high school from the center of the City to the periphery (literally bordering the City boundaries).

As the crow flies, the current High School location is only 1.5 miles from the old site. To drive or bike the same distance is closer to 3 miles but the increased distance is only one of the problems. In order to bike or walk to the current high school, you would need to either take 33 (West Market St.) or Erickson to reach Garbers Church Road. Both busy, one road with sidewalks and one without.

From the day the school’s doors opened, there could have and should have been a safer, faster, more logical way to access the high school for walking and biking. Sitting between the Sunset Heights neighborhood and the school you will find Heritage Oaks Golf Course. A public golf course run by the Harrisonburg Parks and Recreation Department. Publicly owned land managed by the Parks and Recreation Department blocked direct walk/bike access to between Hillandale Park and Harrisonburg High School.

Shortly after the high school was constructed, local advocates recognized the need for a safe walk/bike connection around the golf course. The concept was included in the Harrisonburg Bicycle and Pedestrian plan but sat for ten years. Then in 2015 Harrisonburg decided to build a new elementary school across Garbers Church rd from the high school.

Once the site was finalized for Bluestone Elementary School, the Coalition sprung to action and began a campaign we called “Connect Our Schools” complete with a logo, yard signs, a petition, and robust outreach to members of the Harrisonburg City Council. The Harrisonburg Public Works Department came up with a plan and a cost estimate and named the project Garbers Church Shared Use Paths.

We aimed to set a new precedent and for Bluestone Elementary to open its doors as a school with access for everyone on day one. We don’t build schools without parking lots or road connections and we shouldn’t build them without a way to safely walk or bike to the front door. Our goal was for a greenway to skirt the perimeter of the Heritage Oaks Golf Course and provide safe and convenient walk/bike access to Bluestone Elementary on Day one.

Bluestone opened in 2017 yet there is still no path around the golf course to provide a legal bike/walk connection to either school. If all goes as planned, the shared-use paths will be built and completed in 2021. While we weren’t able to secure the construction on the timeline that the community wanted, we were able to succeed in convincing the city to include funding for the project in the bond package that funded the school’s construction.

That funding was then matched with a VDOT Revenue Sharing Grant and has been waiting on the City to finalize the right of way with private landowners ever since. Fortunately, the majority of the project is on land already owned by the City of Harrisonburg. To include, Thomas Harrison Middle School, Hilldandale Park, Heritage Oaks Golf Course, and Bluestone Elementary property.

What changes with the recent discussions about the Heritage Oaks Golf Course?

For us, the recent golf course discussions have not changed our committment to Connecting Our Schools via the Garbers Church Shared Use Paths. We still believe these trails should be built on the planned alignment and are eager to see the construction of the Garbers Church Shared Use Paths (Connect Our Schools) begin in early 2021. We are grateful for the City of Harrisonburg Parks and Recreation Department’s support of moving the trail alignment onto the golf course property and for their leadership and action to ensure the funding and construction of the Cale Trail to connect Thomas Harrison to Westover Park.

Whether the golf course remains as it stands today, shrinks or disappears completely, the alignment and construction of the Shared Use Paths along the edge of this 200-acre property are still well-positioned to benefit our community for decades to come. Just south of the golf course property sits land for sale that is zoned R1 and will likely be developed into housing at some time in the near future.

Where exactly will the trails go?

Cale Trail Alignment

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