Time to Plant… Native Species

whiteoakLots of plants are pretty.  Some pretty plants are a two-fer, and are also healthy for all the other critters that live in Northern Virginia.

The local animals have not developed a taste for non-native species.  (Have you ever seen a caterpillar on a daffodil?)

New arrivals such as garlic mustard, Japanese stilt grass, etc. are close to bug-free.  Our local bugs are not able to eat ’em.  When the natives get replaced by the aliens, “no insects” means the local birds go hungry.

In contrast, different species of native oak trees provide food for the greatest variety of butterflies and moths.  Pretty plants can feed butterflies and birds, but only if we put the right plants in the garden and in the yard.

Looking for natives?  Ask your nursery to point out their display of native plants, or come to the Native Plant Sale of the Prince William Wildflower Society on May 7 at Bethel Lutheran Church, 8712 Plantation Lane in Manassas.

March 15, 2016 Vote on Bi-County Parkway

repeatUpdate: The Board of County Supervisors voted 4-3 on March 15 to remove the Bi-County Parkway from the Comprehensive Plan.
Look closely – can you see how the Bi-County Parkway will spur economic development in Prince William County?

Prince William would get the traffic, from I-95 to I-66 and then north through the supposedly-protected Rural Area. If any business activity is generated by the road, it would be next to Dulles International Airport – far away in Loudoun County.

The Prince William Board of County Supervisors vote on March 15.  The 8 supervisors have the opportunity on March 15 to delete this taxpayer-funded subsidy for business development in Loudoun County.

The county should focus public investment, especially state funding for transportation, on projects that will spur economic development in Prince William.   In Arlington County, homeowners and commercial property owners each pay about 50% of property taxes. In Prince William, homeowners pay about 80%.

Supervisors who say they want to limit property tax increases on homeowners know that the best long-tern strategy is to spur commercial development in Innovation, especially on Route 1 and at Innovation.  Such development benefits homeowners who live on both the eastern and western halves of the county.

Prince William could grow local jobs at Innovation – but the Bi-County Parkway won’t make that happen.

The region won’t benefit either.  Northern Virginia needs transportation projects that reduce congestion.  Supervisors need to plan transportation solutions to fix what’s broke, rather than waste tax dollars on the Bi-County Parkway.


logobutterfly-smCurious about nature?  Enjoy the outdoors?  Want to be a part of natural resource management and conservation in Virginia?  Then you are a perfect candidate to become a Virginia Master Naturalist.

Virginia’s environmental agencies initiated this program to build a community of educated, interested conservationists. The Merrimac Farm chapter will start its 2016 basic training program on April 10. Classes and field trips, including some evening sessions and many weekend expeditions to natural areas within the county, finish up in August.

The classes/field trips explore different fields of natural science (botany, geology, insects) with a focus on Northern Virginia’s ecological systems. The foundational knowledge, at the introductory college level, is targeted towards developing a real-world understanding of the local environment and how development is affecting natural systems. Our streams, our forests, our backyards are changing. The Master Naturalist program provides the context, examines what is causing those changes, and gives you the capacity to understand the impacts – good and bad – that we and our children will see over the next decades.

Some time is spent in classrooms; most is spent outdoors seeing up close and personal the plants, the animals, and the interactions that occur. Graduates extend that knowledge to the community through volunteer service. Master Naturalists renew their official certification annually through various projects and at least eight hours of continued training.

flGraduates of earlier Merrimac Farm Master Naturalist Program classes are now having a great time monitoring bluebirds, investigating vernal pools, facilitating camera trapping for the Smithsonian, monitoring stream health, learning more about and speaking up for environmental protection.

No previous experience is needed, just a thirst for knowledge of the world around us paired with a commitment to service to maintain, preserve, and protect our environment for future generations.

For more information, including how to apply for the 2016 class, check online at http://merrimacfarmvmn.weebly.com or email merrimacfarmVMN@gmail.com

For more on the statewide Master Naturalist program, see http://www.virginiamasternaturalist.org/

The Bi-County Parkway – Baaaaack Again

Update: The Planning Commission voted unanimously to remove the Bi-County Parkway from the Comprehensive Plan – with the stipulation that the Transportation Dept. be directed to include transportation options to provide objective measures and options as part of the Thoroughfare Plan Update.

Before the stipulation was added to the resolution, it appeared to be a 4-4 tie. suggesting the preferences of the Board of County Supervisors.

nsThe “Bi-County Parkway” project has morphed over the years, as Virginia officials have proposed several Outer Beltway plans.

In the 1990’s, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) pushed for a “Western Transportation Corridor” linking I-95 to I-66, then extending north through Loudoun County to connect to I-70.

Maryland has never supported this major highway cutting through an area zoned for agriculture and large-parcel estates, and has consistently blocked Virginia’s dreams of funneling traffic across the Potomac River.

Ten years ago, VDOT proposed a “Tri-County Parkway” to connect I-66 in Prince William with Route 50 in Loudoun. In 2011, the Virginia Secretary of Transportation maneuvered to have the Tri-County Parkway added to the list of projects to be funded if Governor McDonnell convinced the General Assembly to finance his transportation plan.

The Secretary was Sean Connaughton, who in his previous job had been chair of the Board of County Supervisors in Prince William County. In a famous comment made after the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) delayed approval because it was not on the published agenda, Connaughton said “You guys would never make it on the Prince William County Board of Supervisors; we live for bushwhacking people.

The CTB acted soon afterwards. It designated a new North-South Corridor of Statewide Significance, establishing the Tri-County Parkway route as a statewide priority for new construction.

ns2In its latest incarnation, VDOT advertised the Bi-County Parkway as the “Road to Dulles.” The National Park Service cut a deal with VDOT. The Federal agency agreed to pave over the western edge of Manassas National Battlefield Park for the Bi-County Parkway.

In exchange, traffic now using Route 234 would be diverted from the core of the battlefield to the new Bi-County Parkway on the western edge, traffic on Route 29 past the Stone House would be diverted to a new Manassas Battlefield Bypass, and the visitor experience would be enhanced by closing the existing portions of those roads within the park.

The public reaction was to question VDOT’s justifications for the road, and then erupt when the state agency failed to support its arguments.  The process for Federal approval stalled, despite National Park Service support, when it became clear that there were better alternatives to the proposed new road.

The new Bi-County Parkway:
– would not reduce commuter congestion on I-66 or Route 50, because commuters travel east-west and the road ran north-south
– would not provide better access to the airport, because it ran to the western side and all the roads enter on the eastern edge of Route 28
– would not enhance economic development at Innovation or elsewhere in Prince William, but instead would encourage commercial developers to locate new jobs in Loudoun County
– was not consistent with the county’s Comprehensive Plan to maintain a Rural Area and build new public infrastructure in the Development Area, where it would be more cost-effective

Opposition from residents on the western end of the county was matched by opposition on the eastern end. The proposal to widen Route 234 to six lanes near Montclair was recognized as an incentive for trucks to use Route 234 as a short-cut from I-95, creating a truckway instead of a parkway.

In 2013, the Board of County Supervisors in Prince William County intiated a Comprehensive Plan Amendment (CPA) to kill the Bi-County Parkway, by modifying the county’s transportation plan and keeping the eastern end of Route 234 as a four-lane highway. No action was taken, but the Board initiated another CPA in April, 2015 to remove what was then called the “Route 234 Bypass-North” from the Comprehensive Plan.

Staff slow-walked that CPA, delaying it by claiming the project could not be considered separately from all the other components in the Transportation Chapter. Delay allowed VDOT to continue to include the Bi-County Parkway in preparation of the next budget for construction, the Six Year Improvement Plan (SYIP).

However, the Prince William County Planning Commission will vote on Wednesday, February 17 on Comprehensive Plan Amendment #PLN2014-00201, Route 234 (Dumfries Road) and Comprehensive Plan Amendment #CPA2016-00003, Route 234 Bypass-North (Bi-County Parkway). The Planning Department has recommended further delay, opposing any change in existing planned prjects until the entire Transportation Chapter can be updated.

This is a new approach, not consistent with past policy. For example, in 2012 the staff supported altering the Transportation Chapter to keep Purcell Road at two lanes (see Comprehensive Plan Amendment #PLN2013-00089).

The Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a coalition of road builders and developers, supports building the Bi-County Parkway.  Local residents still oppose it.

The full set of the Prince William Conservation Alliance’s comments, and previous background material, highlight how investment in transportation infrastructure could enhance the county’s economic development, maintain the Rural Area, and limit the costs of government. The Bi-County Parkway proposal does none of those, and delaying action simply invites the state to build a road that the residents clearly oppose.

Mow-Cow to the Rescue!

Snow Cow logoThe 30″ of snow that fell a week ago… well, it’s good that it disappeared slowly.

A quick melt would have sent a quick pulse of runoff that could overload local creeks, delivering a surge sediment and pollution as stormwater raced down to the Potomac River.

A slow melt helped to recharge groundwater supplies, rather than damage surface streams.

But slow snow was a problem.  Over 80 members of the Prince William Conservation Alliance had RSVP’d that they were coming to the Winter Party on January 30.

That meant lots of cars looking for a place to park, and a foot of snow was not evaporating, sublimating, or melting away to free up the parking spaces. (In suburban Prince William County, it’s ironic but typical that even conservation meetings require driving to get from hither to yon.)

How to make room for those cars?  Shoveling was an option – but a few hours of effort made clear that it would require another few days to clear spaces for the expected crowd.

Hark!  What’s that sound?  Was it a bugle signalling the arrival of the cavalry?

Why yes, though the sound was really closer to a scrunch-bang-scrunch.   It was the leader of the Mow-Cow lawn service team which, in the winter, morphs into Snow-Cow.

The cavalry was the founder/president plowing snow and clearing parking spaces so the party could happen.

Sure, it was his day off.  Yes, he’d gotten home from work after 1:00am that morning – but good people do good deeds, even when it’s inconvenient.  It’s a “Udderly Dependable” operation.


Before the Snow-Cow cavalry arrived



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.


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.


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.


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.


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

Madera Farm – The Backstory

January 20, 2016 UPDATE:  The Board of County Supervisors approved the addition of Madera to the Agricultural and Forestal District on January 19 in a 7-0 vote, but only after the landowner committed to cancel the request for a Special Use Permit.  

The Gainesville District supervisor negotiated that in advance.  The Prince William Conservation Alliance spoke at the public hearing in support of commercial agriculture, rather than industrial operations, in the Rural Area. 

Normally, adding a farm in western Prince William’s Rural Area to an Agricultural and Forestal District would be a routine event. The county established that land use classification in 1973 to facilitate preservation of farms and forests.

However, Madera “Farm” is not a normal agricultural operation. It resembles more closely an industrial operation, grinding mulch and processing construction and demolition debris.


Adding Madera to an adjacent Agricultural and Forestal District would undercut efforts to maintain commercial agricultural operations in Prince William County. It would reduce the credibility of actual farmers working to preserve farmland, and open the door to increased housing and retail strip shopping districts in the county’s Rural Area. Read more »

Blackburn: A Pre-Thanksgiving Turkey That Ought to Be Terminated With Extreme Prejudice

wheelerThe Board of County Supervisors postponed the original May 12, 2015 date for considering the Blackburn rezoning at the Route 234/I-66 interchange (the interchange with Koons Honda, not the bypass…).

It’s back on the agenda, this time for September 29 November 17 (yeah, stretched out past the election).  The supervisors have another opportunity to reject this bad project.

The Planning Department still recommends denial.  As noted in the staff report, the Blackburn proposal still has the same problems – massive amount of residential development, minimal offsetting benefits from commercial development.  More congestion on local roads, more-crowded school classrooms, higher taxes to subsidize services to residential development – hey, what’s not to like about this turkey?

Prince William needs to attract jobs to Prince William; that’s why Regional Employment Center makes sense at the I-66 interchange.  That land has some of the best potential for commercial development that provides local jobs, assuming the county implemented an economic development strategy other than “ugh, can we build more houses?”

A vote in favor of Blackburn would be a vote in favor of a windfall profit for the landowner selling the parcel.  A vote in favor of Blackburn would stick it to local taxpayers, giving them indigestion in the wallet, in the classroom, and in the car for many generations to come.   Sure, the next election is 4 years from now – but why would any elected supervisor think residential-heavy development was suitable for that location?

VRE to Haymarket… Who Benefits?

VREVRE Community Meeting!
Update: at the meeting, VRE displayed but did not highlight its exhibit on the number of trains per day.  The exhibit was used to create the inaccurate impression that a Haymarket extension would somehow increase the number of trains using the Manassas Line.  If anything, spending money to build new track would reduce the capital funding available to buy new trains.

Tonight… Tuesday, Nov. 10, 6-8 p.m. at Gainesville Middle School, 8001 Limestone Drive.

Bottom Line: VRE appears to be seeking public support for an extension to Gainesville/Haymarket. It’s a bait-and-switch sales pitch – make people think an extension to Haymarket will increase the number of trains per day.

If anything, spending capital funding on new track instead of buying new trainsets would reduce the potential for increasing the number of VRE trains running daily on Manassas Line.

A legitimate alternatives analysis should include:

  • not building any extension of track, and instead investing in new trainset.
  • not building any station at Haymarket that will induce additional demand from Culpeper, Fauquier, Warren, and Page counties.
  • not building a large parking capacity at any new station, but instead building multiple park-and-shuttle lots nearer to subdivisions so commuters in single occupancy vehicles won’t clog local highways at rush hour.

VRE should consider the alternative of building a new spur track into Innovation Town Center or north of current line, where Vulcan quarry is reaching end of its life and will be converted into water storage bank soon. A new end-of-line station at Innovation/Vulcan quarry could incentivize a high-density town center, and increase TOD potential there!

Prince William County has the opportunity to serve as a 21st century role model for smart transit growth, but the current VDOT plan demonstrates we have a long way to go!

Cell Tower Proposed for Catharpin Road, Rural Crescent

Guest Post by Melanie Kaminski

Thank you for the opportunity to share our concerns over the 145 foot, plus 20 extra feet anytime they want it, fake mono-pine that will tower 100 feet plus above the natural tree line at 5513 Catharpin Road, in the Rural Crescent.

Community Wireless Services (CWS) has a 10-year old lease with the landowner and has decided we have poor coverage in the immediate area. Our neighborhood, Oak Valley, is where the majority of those in this so called gap live. We went door to door and a majority of homeowners signed a petition that they did not want the cell tower.

We have service provider maps and our own field testing shows there is good to excellent cell phone coverage. It may not be 5 bars everywhere, but it is fine for us!  We chose to live here because of the rural nature of this area and a commitment of the county to preserve this as stated in their comprehensive plan.

The County even has a Telecommunications Chapter in the Comprehensive Plan, which this application by CWS does not line up with!  This site is the least favorable, according to that plan due to its agriculture and rural designation.  CWS has asked for three waivers for improper set-backs of the tower. It sits in a valley which makes it a poor choice. Read more »