The gap in the Roanoke River Greenway might soon be bridged.
The city of Roanoke and owners of Walker Machine & Foundry have reached an agreement to allow the paved trail to pass through riverfront property currently owned by the foundry, which would complete the riverfront greenway within the city limits and end a five-year dispute between the city and the foundry.
In a proposed land swap expected to be finalized this month, the city will get two parcels of foundry property along the Roanoke River in exchange for an abandoned city-owned railroad line that bisects the now-defunct foundry’s property. The riverfront property would allow the city to complete the greenway, which will include a bridge across the Roanoke River.
The Roanoke City Council is expected to schedule a public hearing for Dec. 21 to consider the deal, which if approved would fill in the 1-mile gap in the Norwich neighborhood that would complete the popular greenway within the city, establishing 10 uninterrupted miles from southeast Roanoke to Salem.
Roanoke and the foundry have battled over the greenway since 2015, a disagreement that has led to the city threatening the usage of eminent domain to take the property and the foundry responding with lawsuits.
Roanoke City Manager Bob Cowell confirmed Friday that the city and foundry have reached a preliminary agreement on the land swap.
In an email Friday, Cowell wrote that the city had “reach[ed] a tentative agreement with Walker Foundry to acquire the river parcels needed to complete the last phase of the ‘Bridge the Gap’ section of the Roanoke River Greenway.”
Cowell added that the city and foundry owners have entered into a memorandum of understanding to exchange properties and “to resolve any pending disputes” between the parties.
“It is anticipated that final resolution to all disputes and the exchange of property will occur by the end of the calendar year,” Cowell wrote.
The city council is expected to approve the Dec. 21 public hearing when it meets Monday.
The Roanoke River Greenway has been built in chunks by Roanoke, Salem and Roanoke County over nearly two decades. The paved trail — immensely well-traveled by bicyclists, runners, dog walkers, families and numerous other users — forms a linear park that planners hope will someday stretch from Explore Park in Roanoke County to the hills of eastern Montgomery County, a distance of about 25 miles along the narrow river that gives the valley its name.
The greenway cuts a paved swath through parks and neighborhoods and runs atop sycamore-lined riverbanks. It also passes less scenic sites such as industrial areas, railroad tracks, the Roanoke Regional Water Pollution Control Plant, Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital and other features of an urban landscape.
In Norwich, which is home to several industries as well as a residential neighborhood, the greenway came to a stop at Bridge Street. It picks up on the north side of the river about a mile away.
Across Bridge Street from the greenway parking lot, owners of Walker Machine & Foundry long opposed the greenway because they were concerned that its presence would endanger the company’s air quality permit from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which it needed in order to operate.
Then, in 2017, the city acquired an abandoned railroad bed through the foundry’s property from Norfolk Southern, and made plans to use that corridor for the greenway. The foundry management said that the railroad spur, known as the “Belt Line,” was the company’s property.
Meanwhile, Walker closed the foundry, put the land up for sale and filed a suit against the city in 2019 that claimed its business was disrupted because of the city’s threat of taking property through eminent domain. Negotiations between the parties continued, apparently.
In his email to The Roanoke Times, Cowell cited the “tentative nature and sensitivity of the current discussions and agreements” and said he would not release more details about the proposed land swap until nearer the public hearing date.
Attempts to reach Walker officials or the lawyer who represents the foundry were not successful Friday afternoon.
According to a letter to the city council written by city attorney Tim Spencer, the land swap would also include drainage easements which would allow current drain pipes to remain so that the property could be redeveloped in the future.
Spencer wrote that “[c]onveyance of the property interests to Walker will allow the City to complete the Roanoke River Greenway, which serves the interests of its citizens, benefits the larger public, and promotes the City.”