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ANS Dips Into Fen Preservation

July 17-23, 2002

A fen 20 feet from the Rust Sanctuary in Leesburg caught the attention of the Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS).

Herndon developer Elite Investment & Management Group Inc. bought a 42-acre parcel in December 2001 to build a 10 large-lot housing development, along with keeping an existing home that is already there. That fall, staff from the Rust Sanctuary “poking around the border” heard frogs bellowing from next door, said Neal Fitzpatrick, executive director of ANS, which is headquartered in Chevy Chase, Md. The sound led to a 100-foot by 60-80-foot pool of water ANS identified as a fen or type of wetland. The fen and surrounding forest area occupy a 5.8-acre lot of the developer’s parcel.

In June, ANS, which has owned the Rust Sanctuary since 2000, offered to purchase the lot for $247,000. The developer said the property was worth $410,000, an amount ANS found to be “totally unacceptable given that the company paid $825,000 for the entire 42 acres six months ago,” said Steve Dryden, ANS media relations coordinator, in a statement.

THE DEVELOPER'S evaluation included the value of the lot and the profit that can be accrued from building and selling a home, said William Gray, executive director of real estate for Elite Investment & Management Group Inc.

"As a result of the economic restraints placed on the development, we are not able to give this property away," Gray said. "We are looking for just and fair compensation in the event the Audubon Society would desire to purchase a portion of the property."

ANS wants to make the purchase to protect the lot from development, since state and county regulations do not provide any protection for freestanding bodies of water, Dryden said. “That habitat is an extremely rare one for Loudoun and also for the state of Virginia,” he said. “That’s why it’s important for the county to act as a steward … when it is in that kind of position … to help preserve that kind of habitat.”

The fen can only continue as a wildlife habitat if the outer forest is preserved, said Tammy Schwab, sanctuary manager and naturalist at the Rust Sanctuary. Some of the wildlife living in the fen lives both on land and in the water, traveling as far as a half-mile from the water. Conservation efforts are needed to prevent the wildlife from becoming fragmented and isolated by development, as stated in ANS's request for funds, dated April 22.

WITH THE DEVELOPER'S permission, ANS called in experts to study the hydrology and amphibian populations in the fen.

“A fen is a particularly valuable form of wetland … on calcium-rich organic soils,” Fitzpatrick said. “Most wetlands are more closely related, at least physically, to streams and floodplains.”

Fens are supported by groundwater seepage as a water source and have “unique hydrologic and geologic features,” according to ANS. Fens are a form of freshwater wetland that hold water for part of the year and support a variety of plants and wildlife but not fish. The fen near the Rust Sanctuary does not have fish, but unlike a typical fen does not dry up during part of the year, Schwab said.

Initial analysis shows the fen to be fed by an underground spring and rainwater with a year-round water supply. The fen supports both wildlife and plants, some of which are rare in Virginia, according to ANS. The fen has Jefferson salamanders, bullfrogs, green frogs, wood frogs, spring peepers, macro invertebrates, insects, duckweed and algae. Duckweed is a flowering plant that floats like small lily pads on the pond’s surface, making it appear to be a green floating carpet or a large swamp.

“A fen is a kind of wetland you can’t mitigate. Once it’s destroyed, it can’t be recreated,” Schwab said. “When you find them, you have to save them.”

The fen has a “substantial amount of water,” considering the historic low flow of the Potomac River and the drought stress on other streams, Fitzpatrick said. “There’s a substantial amount of water, which is really important for aquatic organisms. It’s a wonderful habitat for amphibians,” he said.

THE FEN as a wetland has other benefits as well, Fitzpatrick said. Wetlands act as a natural nutrient removal system, buffering streams by blocking out the nutrients, and provide storage for storm water during large rain events. The wetlands can provide natural flood control, diminish droughts, recharge groundwater aquifers and stabilize shorelines, according to information provided by ANS.

“We truly don’t know the value of the fen until we have a chance to collect the data,” Fitzpatrick said.

ANS hopes to conduct a full survey of the fen, beginning this fall with the survey continuing in full in March. The majority of amphibians begin inhabiting the pond during the spring months.

The first priority for ANS will be maintaining the wildlife habitat living in the fen and forest area nearby and using the fen for educational purposes, Schwab said. The Rust Sanctuary may use the fen to provide programs and activities for the school program, family program, summer camp and adult education program.

ANS remains in negotiation with the developer, Fitzpatrick said.

ANS AND THE DEVELOPER are scheduled to meet with county supervisors and land development officials on Friday

"We're sympathetic to what the Audubon Society is attempting to accomplish," Gray said. "We will support them to the extent we can. We are hoping there would be some resolution out of this that's acceptable to all parties."

ANS is an independent 10,000-member group in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area. It operates three sanctuaries in Leesburg, Chevy Chase and Clifton.