PHOTO: Rappahannock underbrush

In this 2015 File Photo, underbrush obscures the view of the Rappahannock River.

TOURISTS to Fredericksburg occasionally admit they’re confused. They’ve heard that the city is on the Rappahannock River, but where exactly is this river that runs through it?

Don’t laugh. Thick invasive vegetation along much of the riverbank has obscured what should be spectacular downtown river views. Despite 13 planning studies since 1983 that recommended a regular vegetation management program to keep those vistas open, invasive trees and non-native plants keep growing—and keep the Rappahannock well-hidden from sight.

Those same studies also recommended that the city construct a “bank trail” along the downtown riverfront to make better use of this natural resource, but it was never built.

The latest study in 2019 by StreetSense repeated the same recommendations made decades ago, which urged the city to make the riverfront a top priority, both to improve residents’ quality of life and set the stage for future economic development.

However, several major construction projects underway over the next two years will provide new opportunities to “activate the city’s historic riverfront to enhance both visitor and resident experiences,” according to Main Street’s “Face the River” proposal, which was presented to the City Council in November. Those opportunities include construction of the new Riverfront Park, repairs and upgrades to Chatham Bridge, and efforts to stabilize the Old Stone Warehouse.

The StreetSense study also recommended that Fredericksburg better utilize small city-owned parcels directly adjacent to the river by installing “beacons”—such as benches, sculptures or light fixtures—that visually draw downtown visitors down the various cross streets towards the urban riverfront. Of course, they should be able to see and even access the water once they get there.

The main premise of the Face the River campaign is that since the Rappahannock River is a distinguishing feature of Fredericksburg, the city should treat it as an integral part of its urban infrastructure rather than an afterthought.

But that is not what has happened over the years. There’s still no riverfront trail from the City Dock to the Central Rappahannock Regional Library. And although the new Riverfront Park will afford a better view of the river, it will not provide direct access to the water.

The Chesapeake Bay Act forbids clear-cutting activity along bodies of water in the bay’s watershed, but the law does allow for the removal of invasive trees, shrubs and vines if they are replaced by native plant species. Tom Smith and David Dorsey told The Free Lance–Star that they and other volunteers have been hand-cutting invasive vegetation for years, and members of Tree Fredericksburg have helped select and plant native trees to replace those that are removed. “Simple, low-cost things like this can improve the visual quality of the riverfront,” Smith pointed out.

The city has participated in this public/private partnership by hauling off discarded shrubs and tree trunks, he said, but without a regular riverfront maintenance program, the cleared areas soon become choked by overgrown vegetation once again.

Beyond keeping the view of the Rappahannock River unobstructed, the city should come up with a concrete and actionable plan to really open up the riverfront with a unobstructed trail running along its downtown riverbank. This trail doesn’t have to be either elaborate or expensive, as it will be flooded on a regular basis. But it should allow easy and safe access to the river for pedestrians, dog walkers, cyclists, kayakers, and nature lovers alike.

“With all of the construction going on over the next two years, we should take advantage of the disruption,” Dorsey said. He’s quite right. It’s time to reorient the city back to what was, after all, historic Fredericksburg’s “first Main Street,” and could be again.

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