On July 17th and 18th, 1864, Clarke County, Virginia hosted what has come to be known as the Battle of Cool Spring, one of several American Civil War military engagements included in the Valley Campaigns of 1864. The battle was a Confederate victory however both sides suffered similar levels of casualties; 422 Union troops fell compared to 397 Confederacy troops.
The Second Battle of Cool Spring ensued in the late 1980’s when a land developer purchased the portion of Cool Spring battlefield site located on the eastern side of the Shenandoah River. The developer, Golf Links Inc., asked the County to approve the site for residential development, an eighteen-hole golf course and clubhouse facilities. Soon thereafter Clarke County found itself at the center of an international media storm as environmentalists expressing concerns about pesticide and fertilizer harm to the Shenandoah River and Chesapeake Bay pitted themselves against the Clarke County Board of Supervisors and nearby residents who supported the planned commercial development.
Although the development plan that was ultimately approved allowed the golf course operation to move forward, the business operation soon began a long a series of transfers and financial difficulties that raised questions about the suitability of the site for a financially viable golf course:
|9/27/84||DB 158/1||Shenandoah Retreat to.Steven Damato, et al|
|1/9/86||DB 166/70||Steven Damato, et al to Mark Vogel, et al|
|7/6/88||DB 188/471||Mark Vogel, et al to Mark Heacock, et al Golflinks|
|6/4/96||DB 263/34||Mark Heacock et al to Virginia National Golf Club Inc. (default of debt payment)|
|2/6/02||DB 344/458||Virginia National Golf Club Inc. to Patriot Development Group, LLC|
|8/15/06||DB 464/481||Patriot Development Group LLC to Virginia National Golf Club, LLC|
|10/26/09||DB 515/341||Virginia National.Golf Course to SPE Holdings, Inc (Petition for Reorganization under US Bankruptcy Code)’|
The Third Battle of Cool Spring
In December 2011, Clarke County was approached by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (NVRPA) director Paul Gilbert. Gilbert said that NVRPA was working with the Civil War Trust – an organization dedicated to preserving American Civil War battlefield sites – to consider purchasing the 194-acre Virginia National Golf Course and placing the property in permanent conservation easement with the Department of Historic Resources. Gilbert said that the Civil War Trust then planned to donate the property to NVRPA which in turn would create and manage the proposed Cool Spring Civil War Battlefield Park.
However, in order to make the plan a reality, Clarke County would need to join Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. Cost to the County taxpayers would be $65,000 annually.
The first shots of the Third Battle of Cool Spring had been fired.
Proposed Park Profile
The proposed Cool Spring Civil War Battlefield Park site would cover 194 acres paralleling two miles of the Shenandoah River beginning from Virginia Route 7 to the West Virginia state line. The proposed site has existing road access from Virginia Route 7.
Civil War Trust and National Park Service experts say that the Battle of Cool Spring was a significant battlefield with unusual scenic and historic value. The Civil War Sites Advisory Commission Report says that the site is one of 384 principal battlefields identified nationwide as worthy of preservation. Across the river from the proposed park lies Holy Cross Abbey’s sprawling 1200-acres where most of the actual fighting took place in 1864. Thanks to the monastic community’s stewardship, much of the battlefield land has been preserved in open space.
The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority plans to integrate the four miles of paved paths and existing buildings into the proposed park’s infrastructure. Combined with the current open space status of the monastery on the western side of the river, the 184-acre park purchase would ensure that nearly the entire Cool Spring battle theater was preserved.
Land Use Considerations
Clarke County has long supported open space preservation through the goals and objectives of the County’s Comprehensive Plan. According to County planning staff, the Cool Spring Battlefield Park fulfills several long-standing land use goals outlined in the Comprehensive Plan;
- Protecting the Shenandoah River and associated flood plain;
- Restoring, preserving and popularizing local historic resource with both local and national significance
- Enhancing economic development by utilizing the natural and historic resources of the County to attract tourism and businesses.
County planners also say that the proposed park is consistent with Clarke County Parks and Recreation Master Plan goal of providing passive recreation areas to County citizens and that the annual cost – about $5 per citizen – is a modest expense in exchange for gaining a well-managed park.
County officials also see the proposed park as a way to meet the County’s soon-to-be- imposed Environmental Protection Agency total maximum daily load (TMDL) limits for reducing pollution flows into the Chesapeake Bay. County officials say that elimination of the golf course and replacing it with riparian buffers and reforestation could address as much as five percent of the County’s TMDL reduction requirements. Much of the responsibility for achieving TMDL levels currently rests with the County’s agrarian interests.
County planners have also pointed to the proposed park as a high quality local attraction which will contribute to increased tourism and business development through sustained increased tax revenue and support for existing businesses.
Many County residents have voiced opinions both “for” and “against” a regional park on the banks of the Shenandoah River based on initial information presented by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. However, subsequent questions generated about the day-to-day operational challenges of operating the park have yet to be answered. Some of the issues raised include:
– Staffing: Local residents have expressed concerns about potential trespassing, litter, fires, camping and criminal behavior at the park, especially after hours. NVRPA has not said definitively whether permanent staff would be stationed at the park.
– Road Maintenance and Access: Because the existing access road from Virginia Route 7 is privately maintained, the County has limited authority on any final road maintenance agreement between Shenandoah Retreat residents and the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. Concerns have also been raised regarding road maintenance on Parker Lane and limiting access to other Shenandoah Retreat roads.
– Future Withdrawal from the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority: At Friday’s Clarke County Planning Commission meeting, one Planning Commissioner said that state law does allow for a county to withdraw from a regional authority provided that the authority does not suffer financial hardship resulting from the withdrawal. The official speculated that because NVRPA is already well funded, any future withdrawal by Clarke County would not cause a financial burden. However, the official also added that it would be unwise for the County to join the NVRPA with any plans to withdraw in the future.
– Litter: Concerns regarding litter and trash removal have been expressed with questions about how often trash will be removed and who will be responsible for litter cleanup at the park.
– Fire Safety: Residents have expressed concerns over camp fires and other unmonitored activity at the park site. Concerns have also been expressed about the impact and cost of additional fire calls on local volunteer fire companies.
– Camping: Concerns about over-night in the park have been expressed, although, NVRPA director Gilbert has said that overnight camping would not be allowed at the park.
– River Access: Although Shenandoah Retreat residents have a legally protected easement that guarantees access to the river even if the area is converted to a park, concerns still exist about how the boat launching and beach access would be handled.
The $65,000 Question
One significant issue that cannot be answered by NVRPA is whether the park’s $65K annual fee is the best use of taxpayer funding given the uncertainties associated with the state and federal economies. In order to decide the matter, some residents have raised the idea of a special public referendum about the park that would put the decision in the hands of voters rather than the Clarke County Board of Supervisors.
In the meantime, County officials have been considering potential funding approaches that would reallocate existing tax dollars to cover the costs. Although specific budget allocation amounts have not yet been proposed, a portion of the $65K price tag could come from several sources including money currently designated for promotion of economic development, funds set aside for use by the Clarke County Easement Authority, as well as a portion of the funds set aside for use by Clarke County Parks and Recreation for capital improvements to the Park.
Discussions have also been conducted with the Town of Berryville for financial support from an occupancy and meals tax. One county official said that it is possible that one or more private groups with interest in the park could offer additional financial support to the County to help offset the annual NVRPA membership fee.
Carpe Diem or Go-Slow?
Nearly everyone in Clarke County seems to agree that the proposed Cool Spring Battlefield Park holds potential for the County. The problem is that some see the park’s potential as “positive” while others see the potential as “negative”. A recent public information meeting held on January 26th at the Blue Ridge Fire Hall was filled to capacity. During the session citizens heard the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority’s plan and in return raised specific issues that NVRPA is expected to address in time for the Board of Supervisors to review at February 13th work session.
Depending on the outcome of the February 13th session, an additional public information meeting could be held as early as February 21st.