“Nature is therapeutic,” said Crozet resident Dan Mahon, Greenway Supervisor at Albemarle Parks and Recreation (ACPR), who is retiring at the end of 2020 after 23 years managing county parks and blazing trails. “Parks are a service for public health. More and more, people are realizing the therapeutic impact of parks and trails on physical, spiritual, and emotional health.”
In fact, before joining ACPR in 1997, Mahon had a private practice in landscape architecture specializing in healing gardens and institutional designs for health care. Designing the Alzheimer’s Garden at the Jefferson Area Board for the Aging’s (JABA) Adult Day Care Center was only one of his projects. Born in rural Fauquier County, he moved at a young age with his family to an idyllic stretch of beach and salt marsh near Poquoson on the Chesapeake Bay. “I carry that place everywhere I go,” he said. “I grew up as a hunter gatherer—fishing, hunting, gathering berries and wild asparagus. It gave me a sense of roots and helped to form my identity.”
After serving as an army medic, working on a tugboat, and other “occupational adventures,” Mahon earned a B.A. in Fine Arts from Davis and Elkins College and an M.A. in landscape architecture from Virginia Tech. He started in the GIS and planning division of ACPR in 1997 and soon moved into community development and subdivision planning. When the late ’90s update of the Comprehensive Plan first included the concept of greenways, Mahon took the plan to ACPR to make sure it was carried out, thus becoming the first Greenway Supervisor. This was later expanded to include blueways—rivers and streams—which often go hand-in-hand with trails. “My role became to work with and organize the community to get enchanted with what these places could be,” he said. Soon he was developing and forging trails in all thirteen Albemarle County public parks. “We now have 4,000 acres of park land and 80 miles of trails,” he said.
“I started out managing proffers,” he explained. “The need for public, common park land is a relatively new one in this area. We met a lot of resistance early on from HOAs and people who did not see why a public trail system connecting neighborhoods was needed. I became an ambassador to persuade developers of the need for trails, and then a union organizer, rallying volunteers to create and maintain them. One of my first projects was to open the trails in Mint Springs. Prior to 2008, most people weren’t even aware of them. We publicized and expanded them, putting up signage and making maps available.”
“Parks used to be managed only for the swimming beaches, fishing, and open field recreation. Few people went to parks for hiking. Now,”—to Mahon’s delight—“there has been a total shift in the public’s perception and demand for bikeable/walkable communities. Things have flipped so that people only want to move to a development that has a common green space or trails. I still remember my first call from developer about a buyer looking for a home on a greenway. That was in 2009.” As his role expanded, he joined several boards of directors, including the Blue Ridge Tunnel Foundation and the Rivanna Trails Foundation. “I wanted to do the same thing in the County that the Rivanna Trails Foundation was doing in the city. I created a trailer full of tools, and set up groups of volunteers around county, starting with Mint Springs.”
Dan Mahon is also a founding member of the Crozet Trails Crew and co-designer of the Crozet trail system. In 2005, when the Crozet Community Advisory Council conducted a survey on recreation needs in Crozet, Mahon suggested adding questions about hiking and trails. Expecting the main demand to be for indoor recreational spaces, the survey committee were surprised to find that trails were actually the #1 demand among responses. “A great majority of people who responded to the survey said that they would like to see Crozet have better pedestrian connections and bike routes,” said Jessica Mauzy, founder of the Crozet Trails Crew. “I was the trails ombudsman for the Crozet Community Advisory Council at that time, so Dan and I met to discuss the survey results and realized that something needed to be done. The county already had some linear easements, but not the manpower to build the trails at that time. I said that I would be happy to organize a group of volunteers to help build and maintain a trail network around Crozet.” They named it the “crew” to appeal to youth, but it ended up attracting mainly adults and retirees. Dan designed the system, working at the county level to delineate the corridors of available Albemarle County land—much of it in flood plains along streams—and got the necessary easements dedicated, while Mauzy organized people to actually clear the trails, build bridges over streams, and install riprap in soggy places. “Dan has definitely pushed forward a lot of trails, greenways, and linear parks in Albemarle County, said Mauzy. “It has been very enjoyable to work with him both as a volunteer and as a professional.”
“Not only do parks and trails provide outdoor fitness opportunities, but they also promote a sense of community. If I moved to another town where I didn’t know anyone and wanted to meet the best people in community, I would join a trail building group. The Crozet Trails Crew is as much about community building as trail building.” Mahon attended many CTC monthly meetings, and often worked side-by-side with the Crew to flag trail routes, install signage, and use his heavy equipment to clear large obstacles. “I feel gratified and fulfilled every time I see people hiking up the mountain at Mint Springs, or see a group of people running down the Crozet Connector Trail.
“My favorite part of the job was community outreach, connecting people to place, enhancing and preserving the natural and cultural landscapes. I enjoyed bringing people to a deeper understanding and appreciation for the land and the character of their home place, like I had growing up. We live in a franchised world, where every town is starting to look the same. We are losing touch with the with the character of place and generational relationships. If we are going to take care of the land, we need to know and feel connected to it.
“The proudest accomplishment of my time with ACPR was the FLOW River Arts Festival in Darden Towe Park, where the Old Mills Trail runs down to the Rivanna River,” said Mahon. “In collaboration with the Rivanna Conservation Alliance, we held this festival for three consecutive Septembers, from 2017 to 2019, to celebrate and create a connection between artists and wild places. Forty visual and performing artists brought their art, music, song, and dance out on or near the river to engage a whole new audience. Over 1,000 people visited, 85% of whom didn’t even know about this trail and the park’s river access. That project opened many people’s eyes.
“Nothing is really finished, it’s all a work in progress. We worked 10 years to get that Old Mills Trail open; you didn’t use to be able to walk down to the river in Woolen Mills at all. It runs three miles and will eventually tie into the James River Heritage Trail.”
When Mahon started, he worked alone, but now the parks are managed by a whole team. “Everything I’ve done could not have been done without the ACPR team: Director Bob Crickenberger; Tucker Rolllins, Trail Maintenance Supervisor; Jim Barbour, Facilities Program Supervisor, and about 20 others have been like a family to me. Our Board of Supervisors has also been very supportive.” The team, which now also includes Tim Padalino in the newly created position of Chef of Parks Planning, will continue to coordinate with the Crozet Trails Crew.
“It’s time to pass the torch,” Mahon said. Then I’d like to take this work to the next level by developing programming around the foundation we’ve laid. For example, I’d like to create citizen park organizations, or launch a storytelling festival at the new McCartney Amphitheater in Mint Springs Park. But first, I plan to just chill out and get centered.”