Nature takes a back seat at PWC Parks

Parks create attractive, desirable neighborhoods where families have a safe place to play and enjoy nature. Parks protect property values, wildlife habitat, clean water resources and give young people an appreciation for the outdoors that can last a lifetime. They are necessities – not frills – for urban/suburban communities.

Localities with strong Park Authorities are well positioned to take advantage of opportunities to improve the quality and quantity of parks. In PWC, we do have a strong Park Authority but that strength is focused on active recreation, which is terrific but covers only half the responsibility.

For example, the Park Authority’s Comprehensive Plan claims it meets the County’s goal for a 50-50 split between active and passive use parkland.  However, the 50% counted as passive use parkland, counts buffers along roads and ball fields in that calculation. Could the County really believe development buffers provide adequate parkland for birders, anglers,hikers, nature photographers and paddlers?

And consider the current unfortunate state of affairs at Hellwig Park, where the same old story is repeating itself– no permits, stormwater blowouts and significant harm to natural areas with violations issued only after the damage is done.

Sound familiar? The situation at Hellwig Park mirrors problems at other Park Authority sites, including Sudley Park (now called Catharpin Park) where stormwater blow outs and disregard for environmental violations created high profile issues in 2004.

Six years later, nothing has changed.

How does the Park Authority get away with this time and again? Developers are expected to meet the minimum standards and they post bonds to ensure this happens. Park Authority projects, however, require no similar commitment.

In addition, although allowed by the state, Supervisors have never authorized County inspectors to issue “tickets” for violations, where cash penalties for noncompliance escalate until problems are addressed.

And to top things off, the County’s inspection team is significantly understaffed. Currently, each inspector is responsible for approximately 200 active construction projects, way over the norm across the region.

Even so, all government agencies – including the Park Authority – should make good effort to protect environmental resources, not wait for violation notices to appear before addressing obvious problems.

But, according to Executive Director Jay Ellington, the Park Authority does not have the internal capacity to identify environmental resources. For an agency charged with protecting these same resources, this is troubling news.

The good news is that Prince William County does have the internal expertise to manage natural areas for public uses, it’s just not found in the Park Authority.

When the County acquired the Metz Wetland, Supervisors transferred the site to Public Works Watershed Management to take advantage of that agency’s environmental expertise. Similarly, when Supervisors recognized the Park Authority was not capable of managing areas with cultural significance, it transferred the historic sites to Public Works.

Citizens consistently prioritize passive recreation through County surveys, community meetings and written comments. Regardless and despite years of high profile problems, the Park Authority has not followed through on promises to be better stewards of the County’s environmental resources.

If we keep doing the same thing, we’re likely to get the same results. On the other hand, Supervisors could honor their commitments to the County’s passive recreation and natural open space goals – and protect taxpayers’ property – by transferring County-owned natural areas to the agency best suited for the job.

Are you happy with how the Park Authority protects environmental resources on County parkland? Do you think County inspectors should have the authority to issue “tickets” for environmental violations?

Unless Supervisors hear otherwise, they assume citizens have no problems with the status quo. Share your views with all Supervisors today.

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