How the Park Authority Treats Its Wetlands at Hellwig Park

Do you assume the county Park Authority protects wetlands that it has identified on its own parks?  After all, state and Federal law requires it.

Think the county agency will avoid damage to the wetlands at Hellwig Park, if allowed to build a new highway to connect Bristow and Aden roads?

Ronald Reagan had the right philosophy: Trust, But Verify.

You can start by taking a look at how the Park Authority protects the well-known wetlands at Hellwig Park. Click here to view photos taken on June 9. The agency’s performance during the Hellwig Park ballfield construction project indicates how well they will protect those wetlands during construction of the Hellwig Highway.

Lots of protection was promised on paper.  The site plan has a map of the wetlands, and places them well with a Conservation Area.

A “level spreader” was added to the outfall from the stormwater pond to slow the runoff before it flows into the Conservation Area and the wetland channel further downstream.  As the site plan notes, “This channel contains documented wetlands and is to be left undisturbed in order to preserve its natural conditions.”

The reality?  The Park Authority dug a 10-foot wide ditch into the Conservation Area, lined it with levees and other barriers, then channeled excessive stormwater directly through the wetland.

So much silt poured down into the wetland, it has overflowed the barriers and polluted even a wider swath of the wetland.  Neighbors have complained that silt from the construction project has damaged the fishing in their pond, one-quarter mile away.

This is a clear violation of the laws and regulations to protect documented wetlands.

The Park Authority lacks both the competence and the commitment to protect natural resources.  The agency may be capable of building ballfields for active recreation, but it is unwilling to inventory and protect its environmental assets.  The county agency can’t even fulfill the conservation promises it makes on site plans for a high-visibility project.

How did the Park Authority Board respond, when alerted to this problem?  Did they direct the agency staff to correct the problem?  Did they reconsider their proposal to construct the Hellwig Highway, a road of undefined width through the documented wetland area (or carefully skirting the boundaries, if you believe the claims of the staff)?

No.  The Park Authority Board exercised no oversight, and provided no direction to the staff.  Instead, in a closed session they decided to appeal the decision of the Planning Commission, which blocked the construction of the new highway.  In the process the Park Authority Board clearly violated the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

State law allows discussion of acquisition of real property “where discussion in an open meeting would adversely affect the bargaining position or negotiating strategy of the public body.” Note that there is no exemption for discussion of any and every issue involving real estate.  Deciding to appeal the denial by the Planning Commission, and ask the Board of County Supervisors to authorize the highway, would not adversely affect the Park Authority’s bargaining position or negotiating strategy for land acquisition.  The board members just wanted to act in secret, and avoid being held accountable.

It was clear at the conclusion of the closed session that the Park Authority Board had made a secret decision-without-a-vote in closed session.  Members started to leave the building without holding a public vote.  Some members of the public, who had remained to hear the Park Authority make a public decision on the new road and protection of park wetlands, highlighted that secret votes were not legal.

Park Authority Board members dismissed those concerns, saying no vote had been taken in closed session.  After hearing the process explained to them by members of the public in the audience, the Park Board finally went through the motions of certifying the meeting and voting on the issue.  Only then was it clear that the decision to proceed with the Hellwig Highway was not a consensus decision.  Final vote to appeal was 6-2, with Lori Bauckman-Moore and Rick Berry in opposition.

(State law says “At the conclusion of any closed meeting, the public body holding such meeting shall immediately reconvene in an open meeting and shall take a roll call or other recorded vote to be included in the minutes of that body, certifying that to the best of each member’s knowledge (i) only public business matters lawfully exempted from open meeting requirements under this chapter and (ii) only such public business matters as were identified in the motion by which the closed meeting was convened were heard, discussed or considered in the meeting by the public body.)


2 comments so far

  1. Your Piece of the Planet on

    […] months ago we wrote an article and posted photos showing how the Park Authority is protecting environmental resources at Hellwig […]

  2. […] Authority says they are responsible stewards and can protect these wetlands from the impacts but history tells a different story.  The Park Authority is incompetent at protecting natural areas within its own parks, and a […]

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