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Peter’s Take: Has NOVAParks Lost the Nature Trail?

Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority (NOVAParks) owns and operates Arlington’s primarily natural Potomac Overlook, Upton Hill and W&OD Trail regional parks.

But NOVAParks seems to have lost the trail outlined in its own Mission Statement which emphasizes (at p.7) enriching our lives “through the conservation of regional natural and cultural resources.”

Arlington’s statistically valid resident park survey (at p. 4) found that our community’s three most desired park features are multi-use trails, hiking trails, and natural areas & wildlife habitats. Yet NOVAParks is now single-mindedly pursuing funding for a project to dramatically widen the W&OD trail to create an environmentally damaging commuter thoroughfare.

NOVAParks’ W&OD trail widening project

NOVAParks proposes replacing the two-mile-long, 10-12 foot-wide segment of the trail paralleling Four Mile Run between N. Roosevelt St. and North Carlin Springs Road. In many areas the new trail will be two parallel paved trails — a 12-foot-wide bike trail, an 8-foot-wide pedestrian trail, a 2-foot median and outside buffers — for a total width of at least 26 feet, equal to some residential streets! Elsewhere, the trail will be widened to 16 feet with outside buffers for a total width of at least 20 feet.

This project should be withdrawn

This project will destroy almost two acres of green space while adding almost two acres of impermeable paved surface, including within Chesapeake Bay Resource Protection Areas (RPA’s) and flood plain along Four Mile Run, threatening increased flooding in Arlington’s BonAir and Bluemont parks. NOVAParks has failed to conduct an “alternatives assessment” of less expensive and environmentally destructive solutions. Finally, NOVAParks has failed to conduct any safety assessment of whether its proposed wider trail, with potentially higher bicycle speeds and volume, will actually increase bicycle speeds, and therefore the frequency and severity of accidents.

Earlier environmentally harmful proposals

Sadly, this NOVAParks’ W&OD trail widening proposal is at least the third time in Arlington that NOVAParks has strayed from its core mission to protect our natural environment.

Potomac Overlook

As ARLnow.com reported in 2013, NOVAParks — then known as NVRPA — backed off a proposal to add a rental treehouse, zip line, climbing wall, and concert pavilion, and more than double the size of a parking lot in Potomac Overlook Park only after the community strongly objected. County Board Chair Mary Hynes intervened to protect our natural environment, affirming that “Arlington wishes to keep Potomac Overlook ‘as is’ where users can continue to enjoy the open space, nature, and educational opportunities that the park provides.”

Upton Hill

In 2016, NOVAParks unveiled another set of environmentally harmful “renovations” at Upton Hill Park, including the expansion of the upper-level parking lot, adding a new parking lot and access road on the lower level for a redone playground right by the RPA, and destroying 115 mature trees. Only after an enormous effort by the community were the new parking lot and road cancelled and the tree destruction cut back — but only roughly by half. A revenue producing — but open space-consuming–ropes course and expansion of the upper parking lot remain in the plan.

Current County Board members are less sensitive to environmental concerns than Mary Hynes was earlier with respect to Potomac Overlook Park:

“[I]t’s going to be [NOVA Parks’] decision, and ultimately we have to accept that they know best for managing their parks inventory,” County Board Vice Chairman Christian Dorsey said.

Conclusion

NOVAParks does not know best.

Repeated strenuous public objections to these three NOVAParks projects require that NOVAParks undertake the following:

  • immediately withdraw this latest W&OD trail widening proposal and implement a genuine public engagement process;
  • implement far more robust community engagement processes before undertaking any environmentally impactful projects in Arlington; and
  • refocus its mission in Arlington, in light of our growing population, on expanding our regional park greenspace, addressing funding through means other than increasing park development.

and our County Board needs to:

  • require that our two Arlington NOVAParks’ Board representatives provide quarterly presentations, oral and written, at County Board meetings regarding NOVAParks’ activities in Arlington;
  • provide active oversight of NOVAParks, protect our environmental heritage, and be less deferential to NOVAParks’ overreliance on commercial revenue.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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