Archive for the ‘Parks and Trails’ Category

Manassas Starts to Give City Parks the “Green Light”

manassaswoodsThe City of Manassas mothballed its parks management operation during the 2008 recession, but it’s coming back to life.

In 2016 it completed a Parks, Recreation and Cultural Needs Assessment and Facilities Plan and a Master Plan for Dean Park.  In 2017, the city started a plan for Stonewall Park.

The planning has defined “Levels of Service” for active recreation.  The city has identified how many more ballfields, basketball courts, etc. are needed as the population grows.  The challenge is not a small one.

boxturtleWhat’s missing, so far, is the recognition that the city also has natural resources to protect in its parks. The initial proposal for Stonewall Park would clear some of the mature forest there, with trees perhaps 75 years old, to add a rectangular ballfield.

Stonewall Park is not a wilderness area, but it’s special. Not many places in Manassas offer a chance to walk underneath a canopy of old oak trees. The forest at Liberia is much younger, for example. Cannon Branch Fort also offers a rare experience to walk in the woods in a city park  There are still some trees left along Winters Branch, despite the recent city project to armor the streambank with stones.

At Stonewall Park, he city has the potential to consider how to replace the non-native Bradford pear trees with species that support wildlife, especially birds. Manassas has many back yards that offer a specific type of habitat and attract specific types of birds, but the city has few places that support critters that rely upon forest habitat. The plants the city installed around the parking lots, when the park was first developed, are only slightly better for native birds and butterflies than the cell tower disguised as a tree.

Manassas could also look into options for improving stormwater management at Stonewall Park. Currently, runoff from the park carries pollution downstream with no controls. It’s one reason Bull Run is on the state’s dirty water list of impaired streams.

Runoff from the urban area also puts the Occoquan River, Potomac River, and the Chesapeake Bay on that dirty water list.  Ugh.

It’s still early in the planning process for Manassas parks.  City staff and elected officials seem receptive to comments.

If you want the city to inventory its natural assets and manage the trees as much as the ballfields, now is a good time to say what you want – submit your comments regarding Stonewall Park.

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What’s Happening at Silver Lake?

“Oh, they have destroyed it.”

That is what one recent visitor to Silver Lake Regional Park in Haymarket commented, as she walked to the platform on the shoreline.  She saw a landscape of mud and old trees, with leaves rotting away at the bottom of what was once a beautiful lake.

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Silver Lake, January 15, 2016

Silver Lake has been drained for a dam rehabilitation project. Like all construction projects, it is aesthetically chaotic, even ugly.  It does not resemble the “jewel in western Prince William,” as promised when the county decided to have the Park Authority manage the 230-acre site in 2009.

Prince William County government has a reputation of bulldozing first and checking for natural  and cultural resources after the fact or not at all. Two citizen members of the Historical Commission resigned in protest last September, after the county decided to build a fire station on top of a family cemetery.

At Silver Lake itself, the Prince William County Department of Parks & Recreation has ignored the presence of vernal pools essential for frog and salamander breeding, and expanded a horse trail to create a dirt road for patrol vehicles through that special habitat.

However, in this case the draining of the lake is both essential and temporary.

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Silver Lake Regional Park is located on the western edge of Prince William County

The 29-foot high earthen dam at Silver Lake is classified as having High Hazard Potential.  It must be reconstructed to conform to Virginia’s Dam Safety Regulations.  The spillway is being replaced so a heavy storm will not cause the dam to break and flood homes downstream.

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replacing the old spillway (left) required draining Silver Lake

The lake has been lowered to construct needed control structures and provide additional storage to prevent flooding. There are concerns about impacts to aquatic life;  the lowering of the water level during the winter months was intended to help minimize those impacts.

Work on the Silver Lake dam is expected to be completed in June 2016.  Cost is budgeted at $2.5 million.

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water will be restored to Silver Lake once the dam repair is finished in Summer, 2016

Playing The Long Game to Ensure Public Access to Public Lands/Waters

lakemanassasdamsmJust before Thanksgiving, the Manassas City Council killed the latest initiative to open Lake Manassas to fishing and non-motorized boating.

The sponsor of the effort, Marc Aveni, was quoted in an InsideNOVA article:
This issue will come back. Maybe not this year, maybe not next year but there’s no way that a resource like that in an area like this with the sense that it makes to open it up to public use will be denied for too long.

At some point, savvy politicians will identify how public use could provide benefits (or lower costs) for Manassas, and the issue will be re-opened.  Recreational opportunities in still-suburbanizing Northern Virginia are valued, and locking up the lake will be recognized as excessively restrictive.

Members of the city council in Manassas will change over time.  The last vote blocked a study that would have identified the risks and analyzed potential impacts of public use.  The FUD campaign (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) to keep the lake closed may continue without any additional facts, but at some point the risks will be put into perspective and different city officials will reconsider the decision.
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Lake Manassas Update

lakemanassasTonight (November 12), the City of Manassas Finance Committee considered a proposal to study the risks involved in opening Lake Manassas to public use.  The vote was 2-1 to reject funding a $45,000 study, but the entire City Council will consider it on November 24.

The lake remains closed to public use, with $80,000 or so spent annually for the city police to patrol the lake and issue trespass citations.  Even adjacent property owners are banned from putting a canoe on the lake.

Members of City Council have expressed fear, uncertainty and doubt about the safety of the water supply if public use was allowed.  Fairfax Water long ago decided that public use was OK;  it permits boats and fishing on Occoquan Reservoir.   Even motorboats zip across Lake Jackson, located between Lake Manassas and Occoquan Reservoir (and part of the water supply for Fairfax/eastern Prince William).

A scientific study could answer the questions regarding the risk of public use, and put those risks into context.  The City Council should also consider the benefits of advertising Manassas through the lake.

In 2011, the city spent over $625,000 to support the 150th anniversary of the Battle of First Manassas.  Manassas collected less than $50,000 in increased taxes from that event – less than 10% of its investment – but also calculated $240,800 in “publicity value” from the broadcast coverage (and additional value from print, radio and internet reports).

The city claimed the subsidy was a smart investment because “the Sesquicentennial had the potential to garner significant media coverage for the City of Manassas.”

Anglers and boaters spend money too – and regular media coverage associating Manassas with outdoor recreation might have a similar impact…

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Dove’s Landing: Watch Out, County Parks Are For… Parking Lots (Really!)

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this look like a park?
Now we know – the county’s Parks and Recreation Department supports converting publicly-owned parkland into a bus parking lot and garage at Catharpin Park.

There is no guarantee that Prince William County will keep open space or ballfields as “open space” or “ballfields.”

The parks people think building a JiffyLube on steroids is a perfectly fine use of public parkland.

Local residents are opposed.  All county residents should be disappointed.  If you care about Dove’s Landing, you should be alarmed.

What could the county develop at Dove’s Landing?  The county could, “naturally,” endorse another garage and bus parking lot on parkland.  A new low-income public housing development ?  Hey, it’s a public use, a different county agency might want it, so housing could be A-OK with the Parks and Recreation Department and the Board of County Supervisors.

You say Dove’s Landing is protected ‘cuz it is in the Rural Area?  No problem – so is Catharpin Park.  After a Public Facility Review, the supervisors can approve anything, anywhere.

If an industrial garage is acceptable at Catharpin Park, what is not acceptable on other parkland?  An office building for the Department of XYZ, instead of ballfields?  A specialized landfill for demolition and construction debris, instead of a waterpark at Andrew Leitch?  If there are no limits, then anything goes.

The only way to protect parkland in Prince William County is with enforceable conservation easements.  Signing an easement that limits the ability of the supervisors to approve anything, anywhere, is not a new concept.  The county has such easements on its historic sites and on some parks purchased with Federal funds.  The Park Authority cut a deal with Angler Environmental to restore stream segments and create the Prince William Environmental Bank with permanent conservation easements.

Two county-owned parks are especially at risk: Dove’s Landing and Silver Lake.  Both sites are currently intended for passive recreation uses and would qualify easily for protection under easements accepted by the Virginia Outdoor Foundation – at no cost to taxpayers.

When the county converted the Park Authority into the Parks and Recreation Department, the Board of County Supervisors gave $50,000 to a land trust based in Fairfax County to “protect” the restored stream segments.  The benefit of that deal are questionable , except for political purposes.

County residents (and clean water resources) would be protected better if supervisors directed staff to pursue Virginia Outdoor Foundation conservation easements for Dove’s Landing and Silver Lake.  Conservation easements would ensure that our two largest, undeveloped parks in Prince William are permanently preserved, and can not be converted into industrial sites or other inappropriate uses.

forget "parks are for people" - parks are for industrial facilities

forget “parks are for people” – parks are for industrial facilities

The “Open Space” Fraud Begins at Stone Haven – Hmmm…. Think It Will Continue Into the Rural Presevation Study?

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Are parking lots “open space”? Really?

Prince William County defines Open Space in the Comprehensive Plan (see page POS&T-24) as:

Land that is not dominated by man-made structures. It preserves natural or cultural resources, provides for passive recreation, is used for cultivated fields or forests, or exists in a natural and undeveloped state. Open space may include nature preserves, historic sites, farms, parks, forests, floodplains, wetlands, etc., and may include some structures, parking areas, roads, trails and facilities that support the use of the land.

“Some structures” is being interpreted so loosely by the Planning Department that the parking lot at Wal*Mart would qualify.

For example, the Stone Haven development application is proposing 1,650 homes and more than 1 million sq. ft. of commercial space on 864 acres between Linton Hall Road and Nisson Pavilion. The site is currently dominated by an established forest, where 35 specimen trees (typically, trees with a diameter greater than 30″) were found. Only 16 are proposed for protection and much of the promised open space does not meet the County’s definition.

Citizens need to fight the Planning Department (and often the elected supervisors…) to get a fair share of parkland, as new developments are approved.  The proposed update to the Comprehensive Plan in 2006 pretended everything was just hunky-dory and business-as-usual was just fine, while the county’s population swelled far faster than the number of ballfields or opportunities for passive recreation.

In response, the Prince William Conservation Alliance led a long debate that concluded with creation of a new trails commission and a policy that the county would “Complete and maintain an up-to-date inventory of protected open space in Prince William County.”

Such an inventory is still missing in action, and the Planning Department is wheeling back to the bad ol’ days of “anything goes, Prince William has no standards, and even guidelines are loosey-goosey” development. The Planning Department is trying to create an open space loophole through which developers can maximize “yield” and profits from their projects, while the taxpayers are stuck with the bill.

The supervisors are requesting an extension of the time to sell bonds approved in 2006 to pay for parks and open space, as well as libraries and roads. You’d think the elected officials would also seek to obtain at least the minimum proffers for public facilities as new developments are approved so the taxpayers don’t subsidize the for-profit developers, but the Planning Department is undercutting that approach.

Which of the following do you think meet the official county definition of “open space”?

  1. Active recreation facilities
  2. Community recreation centers
  3. Power lines
  4. Stormwater management infrastructure
  5. Buffers along roads
  6. Middle schools
  7. None of the above

If you picked “none of the above,” think again.  According to the staff report for the proposed Stone Haven development project, the County Planning Office agrees with the developer that items 1-6, above, qualify as open space in Prince William County.  The county is trying to change from commitments of “Protected Open Space” and establish a new category, “Pretend Open Space.”

It’s a fraud, unless you think the proposed bus parking lot next to Catharpin Park is no different from the park itself.

Yeah, the entire acreage dedicated to a middle school, including buildings and parking lots, is “open space.”  Really.   So is that 15′ wide strip of grass between the road and the parking lot.  When you walk through the doors of Chinn Recreation Center, you’re not indoors – you’re walking into open space, as proposed by the Planning Department.  Really.

As Sherlock Holmes would say to Watson, “The game is afoot.”  The same efforts to disguise the number of acres dedicated to public parks is underway for open space at Stone Haven, and that offers a clear clue about upcoming proposals for “preserving” the Rural Area…

Looking a $100,000 Gift Horse in the Mouth

It took less than a year for the Coles District supervisor to act on the opportunity to open up the Dove’s Landing parcel to public use, after magisterial district boundaries were redrawn to shift the parcel from the Brentsville District.

On August 7, 2012, the Board of County Supervisors committed $100,000 for Dove’s Landing from the 2012 carryover funds.  No details were provided in the motion, so it is not clear how the money will be used.

$100,000 is a nice chunk of change, extracted from the taxpayers and allocated in an opaque budgeting process that has drawn severe criticism.  Getting money through a budgeting technique that lacked transparency or citizen input, for a project with no plan or performance measures, is far from ideal.

Still, it’s long past time to address the county’s need, as highlighted in the Comprehensive Plan,  to provide recreational opportunities beyond ballfields.  With $100,000, Prince William could do some real good, or some real damage, to Dove’s Landing.

The county could, for example, repeat its experience at Silver Lake.  Ugh.

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Update … Yes, It’s Legal to Fish in Lake Manassas – If You Can Get There from Here

September 17, 2014 — Manassas City Council Work Session planned for September 23, 6:00 pm at Manassas City Hall, 2nd floor conference room. Scheduled at the request of Councilman Marc Aveni, this work session will focus on opportunities for public access to Lake Manassas for fishing and nonmotorized boating. Be there!

June 29, 2011 — The Manassas Patch has an entertaining tale of a angler who was fishing from the shoreline of Lake Manassas, when confronted by the county police.

Key sentence: “I confirmed the next day with the  City of Manassas Division of Water Utilities that, in fact, it is not  illegal to fish from the shores of the lake, so long as you have  permission to be on the property where you are fishing.”

(The city has missed a great opportunity to open Lake Manassas to public recreational use, in partnership with George Mason University and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.  Instead, the city hired extra police and is paying lawyers to keep the lake closed, blocking public access.  Only landowners with property adjacent to the lake – and their invited guests – have the right to fish there now.)

George Washington National Forest – How Should We Manage It?

Ever hike, fish, or hunt in Massanutten?  Been to the vista point at Big Schloss, or enjoyed the view of the forested mountains as you travel on I-66 or I-81?

The US Forest Service is revising the Forest Plan for resource management over the next 10 to 15 years of 1.1 million acres of land in Virginia and West Virginia.   Lands for the George Washington National Forest were acquired, starting in 1912, to protect the watersheds of navigable rivers.  The entire national forest is located within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and today it contains 1,171 miles of perennial streams (of which over 700 miles support a cold water fishery).

The Forest Service’s preferred alternative, Alternative G, would protected the water quality by blocking most uses of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for drilling natural gas wells.  The Marcellus Shale underneath the forest is not the richest in hydrocarbons, but there is still the potential for drilling…

Comments on the draft Forest Plan must be submittted by September 1.  Send them to comments-southern-georgewashington-jefferson@fs.fed.us

Public Access to Public Lakes and Rivers – Progress in a Forward Direction

Prince William County plans to provide public access to Lake Jackson, creating a canoe access point near the dam.

The Federal government also plans to create 300 additional public access sites in the Chesapeake Bay watershed over the next 15 years.  One of those could be at Featherstone National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) – if the US Fish and Wildlife Service decides in the Comprehensive Conservation Plan to provide public access to the Potomac River, as well as to wetlands within the refuge.

The National Park Service is asking for input on improving public access to the water, as part of the process to create the “Chesapeake Bay Region Public Access Plan” by 2012.   Tell them what you think, and feel free to highlight the opportunity for the US Fish and Wildlife Service to create public access to the Potomac River at Featherstone NWR.