Monday, May 17, 2010

Challenges for White's Ford Regional Park

White’s Ford is a nearly 300 acre property on the Potomac River in Loudoun County that we hope will become one of our new parks. The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority has been engaged in a local permitting process that has gone on now for over a year and a half. After 14 months of review by the Planning Department including hearing and work sessions, the Loudoun County Planning Commission recommended approval of our permits by an 8-1 vote.

Recently, the Board of Supervisors approved the “Commission Permit,” which allows it to become a public facility, but sent two other permits, one for a boat launch for canoes and kayaks and one for camping, back for further review by the Land Use and Transportation Committee of the Board. Since then we have agreed to further reductions in use and other conditions.

Park Uses:

Most people would think that a park is a universally good thing. The issue is park uses. There is a group of around thirty people who are landowners near the site and friends and family of those neighbors who are opposing the public uses.

All that has ever been proposed for this site is boat launching, picnicking, camping, occasional special events, trails and historical interpretation - all uses that are considered by most to be “passive.” This is opposed to athletic fields, water parks, performing arts venues and other recreational uses that draw large number of people at certain times.

The road leading to the park, Hibler Road, is a rural gravel road. Much has been said about the transportation challenge that this poses. One of the challenges is that the permitting process for a park is the same as it is for a residential or commercial development. The big difference for a park is the pattern of road usage. Parks are not used heavily on weekday mornings or evenings (rush hours) like other uses. Parks are used mostly on weekends when other road travel is more spread out. The uses we are proposing are also not the kind of uses that will draw large groups at the same time.

It is important to think about why we create parks. We do this to offer places for the public to go and engage in wholesome outdoor activities. Fishing, boating, camping and hiking as well as historic tourism are all important.

In 2007, we asked a firm to poll/survey Loudoun County residents about park uses, and the results strongly support a White’s Ford Park with the uses we have proposed.

- 59% had a need for natural areas.
- 59% had a need for historic sites.
- 58% had a need for picnic shelters and areas.
- 46% had a need for unpaved trails.
- 30% had a need for campgrounds.
- 25% had a need for boat launch & rental sites.
- 21% had a need for cabin rentals.

The smallest of these percentages represents nearly 20,000 households in Loudoun County, yet around 30 citizens interested in keeping people out are having a disproportionate influence. Unfortunately, since the park does not exist yet, it does not have a constituency that has grown to use and love the park, and is willing to speak up for it.

History and Archeology:

During the process, some people have suggested this is a bad location because they are looking at it from the perspective of roads. But roads are not the most important factor in selecting land for parks. When we analyze properties for parks, we look at factors like access to water, historic significance, trail potential and others. White’s Ford is an outstanding property from a park perspective.

The biggest historic event to take place there was the crossing of the Confederate Army from Virginia to Maryland, shortly after the Second Battle of Manassas, on their way to the Battle of Antietam. General Stonewall Jackson and Colonel Elijah White scoped out all the potential crossing points along the Potomac and selected this as the best site. In addition, the site still has the house where Elijah White and his family lived before and during the war. We specialize in historic sites at the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority and are always looking for locations with rich history to preserve and interpret.

We have also done extensive archeological work on the site and discovered evidence in a number of locations that tell the story of Native American people who lived near the river. We have carefully planned park amenities to avoid these locations, yet the opponents like to suggest we are insensitive to the history. It is precisely because of these features that this land should be a park.

Environmental Protection:

The opponents have also made a lot of noise about how this park will somehow be an environmental problem. This line of thought is without any merit. Currently, the land has two uses. Next to the river it is plowed and planted in row crops, and the upland portion of the land is being used to graze cattle. There are very few trees on the property, other than directly along the river bank and along the one stream valley on the property. One can assume that the row crops by the river are likely being sprayed with fertilizer and/or pesticides. In short, the current condition of the land is less than ideal.

We are proposing to convert most of the land to forest and meadows that will substantially improve the habitat value of the land. We have worked with the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy on this plan, and they are supportive of our plans.

Along the river, we have agreed to a 200 foot riparian (forested) buffer. This is twice the buffer that would be required under Chesapeake Bay Resource Protection Areas.

Some of the neighbors have spoke at every opportunity about the threat of shoreline erosion that they believe will come with trails and park usage. While the concern about erosion is noble, there is a great misunderstanding about cause and effect on this issue. In November of 2009, Williamsburg Environmental Group studied the impact on shoreline impact from boating and trail use and found that the shoreline was in good condition at numerous park locations along the Potomac, and there was no evidence that trails or boating posed a threat to the shoreline. I am sure no amount of research will convince some, but it is important that the broader community have a clear understanding that well managed hiking trails and boat launch areas pose no threat to the integrity of the shoreline.

The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority has over 100 miles of trails; 35 of those miles are hiking/equestrian trails that parallel the Potomac, Bull Run and Occoquan Rivers. We own and manage over 8,000 acres of river front property.

Making White’s Ford a park will have tremendous ecological value.


The Regional Park Authority has managed parks for over 50 years. We are a regional leader in conserving historic resources, and a national leader among park agencies in progressive environmental policies. We have extensive experience managing trail networks, family campgrounds, water access points and other features.

Up to now, we have kept our focus on the legal and land use issues related to the permits we were seeking. As public officials, it is our job to have thick skins and not worry too much if a few choose to oppose what is going to be good for the general public. However, by not addressing the issues the opponents have been putting out, some may think that those claims have merit. The purpose of this piece is not to disparage any individual who chooses to oppose White’s Ford Park or the uses of the park (everyone has a right to an opinion), but to set the record straight on a number of issues that we have not addressed as clearly before.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Making Parks Look Great

From time to time I get out and help maintain the W&OD Trail. This week I spent some time on a mower. It is always a great experience. It is a side of parks that many park users do not focus on. but every week our staff are cutting grass, painting buildings, cutting up fallen trees that are blocking trails in the woods, or other tasks. These efforts make your expedience in the parks great.

I am very proud of the efforts of our park staff and I think all the hard work is very apparent. In the last 3-4 years all of our parks have seen a significant improvements in their appearance.

If you enjoy your parks, thank a park employee when you see them doing their job.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bike to Work on May 21st

Bike to work day is coming up and according to the Washington Area Bike Association around 1,000 people a year are joining this annual day which sees in excess of 8,000 people a year peddling to work.

Nearly 6% of the population of Portland Or commute on their bikes on a regular basis (and it rains a lot there). As more people in our area choose to the bike instead of the car to go places, the social and personal benefits are great. On the community level our road become less clogged, and our air becomes cleaner. On the person level, cycling is fantastic exercise.

The Fairfax Times just ran a great story about the bike to work trend which you can see at:

In this story Charles Strunk Fairfax County Bicycle Program Coordinator notes "the Washington & Old Dominion Trail sees the highest commuter traffic, and even experiences a "rush hour" effect on weekday mornings and evenings. "The W&OD is like the I-66 for bikers," Strunk said of the 45-mile trail that extends from Purcellville to Arlington."

We are very proud to be able to offer the backbone of so many cycling trips that use the W&OD Trail as part of the journey.

For those interested in biking places, Google Maps has just recently added a feature where you can search out the best route between point A and point B that would work for a bike.

Whether your trip is to work, the local store, or an area park, plot out your course and go there via peddle power. In addition to being good for you and the world, it is a lot of fun!