Where should we buy new land for county parks?

The Prince William County Park Authority has decided where it will buy new land for parks. Parcels have been identified, appraisals ordered, and acquisition authorized by the Board at its July 22 meeting.

Right now, the county is far short of its goal of 15/acres of county-owned parkland per 1,000 residents.  When that standard was approved in the  2008 Parks, Open Space, and Trails chapter of the Comprehensive Plan, Prince William had only 70% of the required 5,718 acres.  By all projection, PW County population will grow, so the deficit (1,700 parkland acres) will get worse unless the county acquires new property.   The question is not whether to buy parkland (especially now, if you think the precipitous drop in land values has hit bottom), but where to buy.

Though the specific parcels to be purchased soon are still a secret, the Park Authority is getting ready to acquire new parkland.

The county has money for new parks.  The Park Authority could establish a logical approach for spending taxpayer money wisely: define its priorities for land acquisition in the new Strategic Plan now being completed, adopt and publicize the agency’s land procurement criteria, and then allocate $$$ based on those priorities and criteria.

One asset to tap: the $3 million approved for land acquisition in the 2006 park bonds referendum.  In this fiscal climate, the county is reluctant to issue those bonds and increase debt – but land suitable for parks will never cost less.  If the Board of County Supervisors (BOCS) had confidence in the Park Authority’s acquisition strategy, then the supervisors might choose to sell park bonds as earlier bonds are retired and capacity for new debt becomes available.

There’s also funding available in proffers for parks from developers.  What’s not clear is how the county agency will determine what parcels to purchase.  The Park Authority could use several different criteria for new parks:

1) “Buy From Our Buddies” – In this approach, developers/landowners who are political allies of county officials would receive first crack at the acquisition funding, and be able to unload low-quality properties onto the county.  While some parcels might match the priorities and criteria for acquiring parks, the main objective would be to funnel public funding into private pockets now.

Blatant favoritism might raise questions of ethics, so this is a high-risk approach for county officials.

2) “Most Land For the Dollar“- In this approach, the Park Authority would justify acquisition of large parcels in the Rural Area, far from where people live, based on the claim that the cost-per-acre was attractive compared to acquisition of parkland in the Developed Area.  The cost would trump everything else.  Strategic Plan priorities and other criteria would be ignored in hopes of scoring a “bargain.”

After the Park Authority rejected over 200 acres of free land at Silver Lake, it will be difficult to make a case that cost is the most important factor to consider.  Still, it’s clear that some officials are trying to create new public facilities in the Rural Area, as part of a conscious plan to extend sewer beyond the boundary of the Development Area.  Pushing for lights and sewers in areas far from the “customers” of the parks makes sense, if your objective is to crack open the Rural Area for dumb growth sprawl.

3)”Take What You Can Get” – In this approach, the developers determine what properties to proffer to the county to meet Level of Service requirements for parks, trails, and open space.  Not surprisingly, in the past such proffers have included property that was too wet or too hilly for ballfields, or so far from public transit that the Park Authority had to build massive parking lots to accommodate all the traffic generated by the facility.

Since proffers are negotiated between county officials and developers, it’s hard to maintain a straight face when those officials proclaim that the developers were unwilling to provide better properties or more-favorable terms.  The county pressure to acquire all of Silver Lake is one example of how the game is played, with the developer sweetening the proffer in exchange for extra housing density nearby.

4) “Plan the Work, Work the Plan” – In this approach, the Park Authority would discuss in public session its alternative priorities for where to purchase new parks, publicly advertise the land acquisition criteria, incorporate public feedback, and then establish clear objectives for acquisition as part of the Park Authority’s Strategic Plan/Comprehensive Plan.  Based on the plans, the Park Authority would seek out opportunities to acquire specific parcels from current landowners, through both new proffer negotiations and straightforward land acquisition.

This upfront, rational approach to land acquisition might result in a comprehensive trail network, one where segments were connected.  It might result in new ballfields being located within walking distance (or a short drive) of large concentrations of residents.  It might result in passive recreation sites and open space, in addition to active recreation sites, to satisfy the full range of citizen priorities for new parks.


1 comment so far

  1. Marian Hamamo on

    Of course Option 4 is the logical way to go, but then when has the Government of PWC and the Park Authority ever done the logical thing.

    They are too afraid that the developers will leave if they don’t give them their way. They are afraid to use their power to control the developers. If a couple of the developers don’t like it and leave, there are always others that would be willing to comply.

    Besides, once the developers have bought the land, they are in the position that they need to do something with it, so we should take full advantage of it.

    Government just doesn’t have enough balls to stand up and do what is right.

    When land is proffered for parks it should be in the area that is being developed. The proffers should include enough land to support the active rec for the area as well as a family park and neighborhood trails.

    Any bond money should be used to purchase land for neighborhood parks, trails, etc. where needed.

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