The social hall at the Blue Ridge Fire Station was packed Thursday evening as a large crowd of Clarke County residents turned out for the public meeting on the proposed Cool Springs Park. Attendees heard presentations from Natural Resource Planner for Clarke County, Allison Teeter and from the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (NVRPA) Executive Director Paul Gilbert. Both presenters outlined the preliminary plans for the park as a baseline for the public question and answer session. The two and a half hours long meeting spawned dozens of questions and concerns about the proposal from residents who live near the property.
The conceptual park project is the result of a proposal received by the Clarke County Board of Supervisors from the Civil War Trust and NVRPA. The Civil War Trust was contacted in April of 2011 by an Atlanta lender who had received the Virginia National Golf Course property due to a bankruptcy filing. The historical significance of the site led to a discussion between the Civil War Trust and the NVRPA. Tom Gilmore, Director of Real Estate for Civil War Trust said at the meeting, “Knowing the NVRPA ‘s track record at running parks, we thought it would be a natural hit and an opportunity to create a nice destination park.”
The Trust has a contract in place to purchase the property with their funds and plans to put it in the NVRPA system, but it is all contingent on Clarke County joining the NVRPA system at an annual cost of $65K.
While the plan was described as being in the very preliminary stages, many at the meeting felt like the process was being rushed through the system and expressed grave concerns over the speed at which the project was proceeding. Clarke County officials said they became aware of the project in December and have been addressing the possibilities since that time. There is, however, a deadline that has circulated regarding the Civil War Trust. Their contract offer to purchase the property expires in May and they are looking for a response from the county by March.
One speaker, Bill Garrett, a resident of Shenandoah Retreat asked “How can you take ten years to build a school and push this through in three months? I think you need to slow down.”
Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, Michael Hobert, answered this question saying,”There is not a set deadline for the decision. The Trust had the idea of purchasing the land. There is no drop dead date except for the contract the Civil War Trust has made. We are proceeding at our own speed.”
Support for the idea of a park was mixed, but all of it was hedged by uncertainties about how a Civil War Park would be run in Clarke County.
While dozens of topics were discussed, the most common concerns revolved around the following issues:
Many residents took issue with the potential for trash from an unmanned park and cited the boat area under the Route 7 bridge as an example of what could be expected if a park with 2 miles of riverfront was built and left unattended. Wayne Brown, a resident of Shenandoah Retreat and founder of the Blue Ridge Wildlife Education Foundation said volunteers have taken 16 tons of trash off the river in the past, most of which has been left under the Route 7 bridge.
The issue of staff for the park has yet to be determined and the NVRPA said they hoped to find a way to have someone on site at the park.
The complex nature of access to the Retreat and the property in question was a concern for many at the meeting. Primary access to the proposed park would be on Parker Lane from Route 7. However ,other roads connect to Parker and there are other access points that lead into the Retreat. Maintenance, security, and speeding were all raised by speakers.
Safety and Staffing
Comments about safety and trespassers were a persistent aspect of the discussion throughout the evening. Scott Friday characterized the idea of a free-entry park with no one on site as a “Free for all,” a sentiment that was echoed by several other citizens. There were also concerns over park visitors wandering off of the Civil War site onto private property and residents wanted to know if the park boundary would be fenced.
NVRPA said that there would not be a fence around the property.
Many residents fear that people coming to visit will use the opportunity of river access more for recreational use than a Civil War park and that will attract an undesirable element that will bring litter, gang activity, and crime to the area.
In response, Paul Gilbert said that they operate several Civil War sites in their system and said that the nature of the park brings people who are interested in history and that this discourages those whose intentions are disruptive . He also said that the Cool Springs Park would be a no-alcohol facility which would further deter illicit behavior.
A serious forest fire that occurred years ago in the Retreat that started at Virginia National was referenced by several residents that expressed concerns over camp fires and other unmonitored activity. They expressed fear that additional fire calls would be placed on volunteers who already are stretched thin.
Many residents of the area believed that the park would allow camping. NVRPA ED Paul Gilbert said, “We are not proposing this as a campground at all.” He added that the the possibility of a group camping on a special occasion was mentioned in an earlier meeting, but the park would not be a campground.
Retreat property owners have a right of way to access the river at an existing beach area. There were several comments that expressed concerns as to whether they would retain that access if the property is taken over by NVRPA. Paul Gilbert said, “It is your right as a property owner in the Retreat to have access to the river and you would retain that.”
Retaining a Golf Course
Some speakers said they would prefer that the property remain a golf course commenting that there are other golf courses already in the NVRPA system and suggested that this could be another. The response from Paul Gilbert made it clear that was not an option. He said if the property was purchased by the Civil War Trust it could not be used a golf course. He also said that golf is an industry in decline and the NVRPA has seen declining revenues from the courses in their system. Even if the Virginia National property could be used as a golf course, he indicated they would not be interested in operating a golf course there.
Control of the Property by Clarke County
Several discussions arose over the issue of ownership and control of the property. The current land deal would be a purchase by the Civil War Trust, that would then place the property into an easement and then transfer it to the NVRPA for public use. This would put the property under the control of the NVRPA which is a multi-jurisdictional authority. Gilbert said that every member jurisdiction is represented by two members on the twelve member board. Citizens were concerned that once the land is transferred to NVRPA Clarke County would only have a minority say in the decision pertaining to the park. Residents expressed a desire to have the details finalized before the property was transferred.
Relating to the control issue, one speaker thought that the project should not be decided by the Board of Supervisors, but should instead be decided by a referendum. Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Michael Hobert, responded, “As I understand it we can request a referendum. The BoS could decide, if there was significant objection to the park, to proceed with a referendum.”
While the project is in the every early stages, it was clear from last night’s turnout that many residents of Clarke County are very concerned about the details of the proposed park and the potential impact it will have on their lives. After the session NVRPA ED Paul Gilbert commented, “I think tonight was a great meeting.” He added, “One of the great things about tonight is we got this wonderful list of issues to start addressing. Half of the battle is knowing what the issues are and we got that half tonight.”