The Clarke County Board of Supervisors voted today to reject a proposal from the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority for a park at the site of the current Virginia National Golf Course in eastern Clarke County, Virginia. The proposal was rejected by a vote of 3 to 2. In favor the rejection were Supervisors Staelin (Millwood), Weiss (Buckmarsh) and McKay (White Post). Opposing the rejection were Supervisors Hobert (Berryville) and Byrd (Russell).
As letters from area historical and open space groups in support of the Civil War heritage park continued to arrive at County offices, the Supervisors offered a small window of opportunity for a revised proposal if the park authority is so inclined.
The motion to decline the park plan was offered by Supervisor Weiss and approved in the three-to-two vote. A letter to NVRPA was suggested following a unanimous second vote saying that the Supervisors were not opposed to entertaining alternative proposals that NVRPA may be inclined to offer.
In discussion regarding the letter, Supervisor Staelin suggested that the document include a statement acknowledging that the County was not opposed to the park and hopes that NVRPA has a “Plan B” alternative to the current offer.
The overriding issue discussed today by the Supervisors was cost.
“There is funding there to cover the cost of the park for a couple of years,” said Supervisor Weiss. “But in the long run the park isn’t going to pay for itself. Eventually the cost will increase to $100K as things get raised.”
“Times are bad now and I believe that they will be for the foreseeable future,” Weiss continued. “A park would be a nice thing to have but right now it seems like a luxury that we can’t afford. It’s just not an appropriate thing to fund based on our situation.”
Weiss also said that he believed that public boat access at the park needed to be reexamined because the current plan to provide shore launches would be damaging to the river.
“If we really want to preserve open space then let’s give $65K to the easement authority every year” Weiss said.
“But it really comes down to money” Weiss said citing that the County had recently deferred an $89K expenditure to extend a gas line from the Senior Center to the current Clarke County High School.
Supervisor John Staelin said that he had had many phone calls over the past several weeks, both for and against the park.
“The community is divided over this issue,” Staelin said. “When the community is this divided you don’t take on something like this. I have no sense of strong community backing, there are just too many divisions.”
Staelin pointed out the County already has several park facilities, including a 50-acre passive park on the mountain that, Staelin said, “the County hasn’t put one dime into yet.”
Staelin added that the proposed park would need to generate at least $7M in retail sales in order for the County to recoup the $65K cost of the NVRPA membership through taxation. Staelin also mentioned that the Clarke County Economic Authority, which he said includes people concerned about tourism, twice rejected requests to sign a letter endorsing the park.
“When you ask people their priorities you hear things like salaries, avoiding a tax increase. I was speaking with the Sherriff and it sounds as if his communications system may need some funding” Staelin said. “Of all of the priorities, it seems like the park is least of all.”
Although Supervisor Barbara Byrd agreed for a new park “it all comes down to money”, she also pointed out that with three years of park fees are already covered and argued that the long term financial impact on taxpayers will be minimal given the national financial recovery.
“We have to look beyond the end of our noses and think about the future” Byrd said. “This is a win-win situation. We have $75K pledged from the Civil War Trust, $25K from the Easement Authority for several years and $20K from Parks and Rec for several years. We can fund the park for many years without taking any additional money from taxpayers.”
Byrd also said that many people in the Shenandoah Retreat favored the park and that a well-managed park would address illegal hunting activities in the area that some residents have complained about.
“This park would be a wonderful feather in our cap” Byrd said. “To have a park like this in our small county is really a rare opportunity. This is the kind of thing that makes Clarke County different from the counties to our north, south east and west. We’re different because of the way we protect what we have here. Clarke County is a jewel and we have to protect it.”
Clarke County Supervisor chairman Michael Hobert echoed Byrd’s statements and offered strong arguments in favor of the park.
“I support the park and see this as a vote about the identity of Clarke County” Hobert said. “Our comprehensive plan is full of examples relevant to what we are about here and this park is consistent with our comprehensive plan.”
Hobert said that the County’s commitment to sliding scale zoning, open space and easements all made statements that differentiated Clarke from other localities and cited support from other County leaders.
“Our appointed leaders on the Easement Authority have recommended that we approve the park” Hobert said. “Our Parks and Rec Department has also recommended approval.”
Hobert also mentioned the archaeological significance of the site.
“This ground is archaeologically significant as well,” Hobert said. “I suppose that it can just sit there for another 100 years but we have a chance to preserve it here and now.”
“I agree that the money is a significant factor and that this is a long term commitment” Hobert said acknowledging the concerns of the three opposing Supervisors. “But we make long term commitments all of the time. The proposed Recycling Convenience Center will cost almost twice as much annually as what we would spend on the park. The County’s priorities can be looked at in a lot of ways.”
Hobert said that he believed that the three opposing Supervisors were discounting the economic contribution potential of the park by not fully acknowledging the value of the Riparian buffer to absorb total maximum daily load (TMDL) river pollution and potential EPA pollution credits for conversion of land from intensive to passive use.
“The University of Virginia has offered to develop a formula that would help the County receive credit for placing river frontage in conversation” Hobert said. “The law allows for these conversion credits but right now there is no formula to calculate them.”
“The cost and benefit analysis associated with the park needs to include this type of calculus” Hobert said.
Hobert then referred a letter received by the County from Civil War Sesquicentennial chairman and Clermont Trust CEO Bob Stieg endorsing the park as an enhancement to the County’s tourism and heritage portfolio as well as connecting Clarke County to a national network of Civil War battlefield tourism.
After the meeting, County officials said that two additional letters supporting the park had been received over the weekend.
View correspondence from the Mosby Heritage Area Association and Preservation Virginia here:
“I see the park as part of Clarke County’s infrastructure,” Hobert contiued “which includes open space and cultural heritage. This is a long-range decision about what we want this County to look like thirty years from now.”
With Hobert and Byrd firmly in favor of the park and Weiss and Staelin opposed, newly elected Supervisor Bev McKay found himself in the position of tie-breaker on the issue.
McKay said that while he was uncomfortable with the cost of the park proposal, he was willing to look at other options and alluded to private fundraising as a potential solution.
“There’s bound to be another option that we can consider” McKay said. “I encourage people to get involved and come up with another way to do this. There are a lot of positions here and I hope that people will come back with a plan that is more suitable for Clarke County.”
McKay then added “Any new plan would have to include a fairly substantial change in order for me to change my vote. I would not be in favor if it’s going to cost $65K.”