BY KATIE THISDELL

Runners, cyclists and anyone else planning a stroll outdoors will have a new path in Stafford County.

It will take some time, but eventually the Heritage Loop will connect Belmont to Ferry Farm, passing other historic sites along the way.

"It's been years in the making, but it's finally starting to come together," Deputy County Administrator Tim Baroody said recently while visiting various sites on the trail.

Pratt Park already holds what will become the middle section of the 4.02-mile trail. The 10-foot-wide asphalt path runs alongside much of the existing mile-long gravel loop circling the athletic fields.

But abrupt stops on both ends mean users have to make an about-face or run into construction sites.

Considered Phases 1 and 2 of the larger trail system, the path through Pratt Park was planned by the now-defunct Fredericksburg-Stafford Park Authority, which managed some parks in the city and county.

During yesterday's sunny afternoon, Stafford resident Ron Cleaver was walking along the existing path, near the YMCA on Butler Road. He was interested in learning more about the next phases of the project.

"I think that's a good idea, I probably would use it," Cleaver said.

Last month, the Stafford Board of Supervisors broke ground on the next phase, which will run through St. Clair Brooks Memorial Park. This 0.89-mile section will link the western end of Historic Port of Falmouth Park to the existing trail, near the YMCA.

Markers in the ground indicate plans for a switchback on this part of the trail. Despite the steep grade, the trail will meet federal guidelines.

"This is a big challenge of how do you get from 90 feet down there to up here," said Chris Hoppe, director of the county's Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities.

Construction is expected to be done in February and cost $825,000.

Funds for this section were rolled over from a Virginia Department of Transportation grant for the former park authority. The county contributes 20 percent, while the majority comes from federal funding.

Overall, the trail system could cost around $3 million. Not all phases of the project have funding yet.

The Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing at its Oct. 18 meeting on a request to VDOT for enhancement program funding, which is used for projects such as this.

About $1 million of the project's total would go toward safety and parking improvements in the area of Falmouth, which was at one time a thriving town.

But today, county staff pointed out, the area around Amy's Cafe is not safe for pedestrian use.

Eventually the county hopes to add additional parking areas and a street crossing, and improve and widen the sidewalk along Washington Street heading up to Belmont, the home and studio of artist Gari Melchers.

"That's the anchor to the west," Baroody said.

Baroody also said he would like to see a pavilion of some type on an old bridge abutment next to the Rappahannock River.

"I like to think big about what we could do out here," Baroody said. "The river view is beautiful once you get past these trees."

The trail would then pass other historic sites: the Basil Gordon House, the Moncure Conway House and Chatham Manor, the headquarters of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

The end point will be Ferry Farm, the boyhood home of George Washington.

"That'll be a signature tourism destination in this area," Baroody said.

He hopes the trail will spur tourism and economic development.

The trail likely will be part of the National Park Service's Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail. This network of locally managed trails includes about 830 miles of existing and planned pathways, including one at Government Island, a historic 18th- and 19th-century quarry site near Aquia Harbour.

While people use the existing section of trail, county officials say few residents know about the larger plan. But, Hoppe said, "Those who know are excited."

Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975

Email: kthisdell@freelancestar.com

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