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Park Problems Proliferate in Dranesville

Budget constraints contribute to pressure for private support

With pressure and conflict over the use of public parkland continuing to increase in Dranesville District, the Fairfax County Park Authority last week adopted new standards for athletic facilities.

The board, scheduled to vote on the standards at its July 23 meeting, waited until a courier could deliver an endorsement from the Fairfax County Athletic Council, which was meeting elsewhere at the same time. The new standards were based on data from a needs assessment study that has not been publicly released because it is incomplete, according to FCPA Public Information Officer Judy Pedersen.

But parts of the study have been shared with the Athletic Council and some user groups at their request, she said.

The study is based in part on a needs assessment survey conducted last August by the Leisure Vision/ETC Institute, Pederson said.

According to a November, 2002, executive summary, 5,000 surveys were mailed or phoned at random to Fairfax County residents.

“The goal was to obtain at least 1,600 completed surveys. This was exceeded, with 1,694 surveys being completed,” said the summary.

“The results of the random sample of 1,694 households have a 95 percent level of confidence with a precision of at least plus or minus 2.4 percent.”

The broader, needs assessment study encompasses data gathered from facilitated “stakeholder” meetings with county residents last year.

“It’s a very comprehensive look at needs” that also includes inventories of facilities the county already has, benchmark communities, multi-jurisdictional national guidelines, community need as determined by the survey, census figures, and projected population, Pedersen said.

Most of the elements of the study are complete, “but it’s a pretty big list,” she said. “Our inclination is to give it all out when it’s all completed,” probably early next year.

“It’s going to be a more understandable package in its entirety, but we are not trying to hide anything. We are complying as people request,” she said. “We haven’t denied the information. Our goal is to release it in a form that is understandable.”

In the meantime, funding problems in Dranesville District parks have been exacerbated by the beginning of a new fiscal year on July 1.

Budget cuts curtailed existing programs at Riverbed Nature Center in Great Falls and reduced the hours the visitors’ center is open.

After citizens raised concerns about an untended boat ramp, Kevin Fay, Dranesville District’s representative to the Fairfax County Park Authority, asked the FCPA board to arrange a meeting with officials from the state of Maryland and Great Falls National Park “to discuss the issues, and make sure we are not missing something.”

WHILE THE POTOMAC River is under Maryland’s jurisdiction, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue professionals are trained in swift water rescue and are frequently called to Great Falls National Park on the Virginia side of the river when rock climbers, kayaks, and average park visitors get into trouble.

“There is a lot of jurisdictional sharing” in emergency situations, said Fay.

Fairfax County recently approved a communications monopole that will be used for public safety channels in Maryland.

A contingent of Fairfax County firefighters recently conducted a two-day training session at Sandy Landing in Great Falls National Park, orienting fire and rescue dispatchers on how they conduct rescues.

It was important to show the dispatchers what happens when a call comes in for help at the park, where “There are no street signs and no identifying locations,” according to Capt. Scott Smith of Company 12 in Great Falls.

Company 29 on Spring Hill Road, 1 in McLean, and 25 and 39 in Reston all answer such calls, Smith said.

At Riverbend Park in Great Falls, citizens have raised concerns about a boat launch ramp that is untended four days a week because of budget cuts.

“I think first we are going to be focused on safety; not just [on] the water itself, but trail upkeep and things like that,” Fay said.

“We are trying to look broadly at that, to see if there is a possibility of restoring programs affected by the budget cuts.”

THE FY 2004 BUDGET CUTS have made public parks more reliant on private support.

After the land for Clemyjontri Park in McLean was donated, the Fairfax County Park Foundation is trying to raise $500,000 to pay for a carousel and playground that are handicapped accessible.

At Nike Park in Great Falls, public donations helped provide $1 million to pay for three new fields that are in the park’s master plan: one rectangular field, a 60-foot softball diamond, and a 90-foot Babe Ruth baseball diamond.

More than half of the funding will come from FCPA bonds; the rest from donations and “leftovers or savings from [FCPA] projects that are not yet ready to go,” Fay said.

At Lewinsville Park in McLean, construction is under way for artificial turf on a rectangular field that will be shared with private Marymount University in Arlington, a public private partnership that could set a precedent in Fairfax County.

Preliminary findings of the county’s needs assessment study, released to members of the Fairfax County Adult Youth and Soccer Council, reportedly showed a countywide shortage of 117 rectangular fields.

A private nonprofit group, McLean Youth Soccer, has offered to contribute $500,000 to develop two new soccer fields at Spring Hill Park, an offer that triggered the first review of the 15 year old park’s master plan.

“MYI’s financial commitment is conditioned on the construction of two new full-sided rectangular fields ... without the loss of any existing rectangular fields,” under the MYS proposal.

But Jane Edmondson, who as president of the Lewinsville Coalition negotiated contribution of the five-acre site for a tournament quality soccer field adjacent to Spring Hill from the Holladay Corporation, said “There’s a constant mantra of ‘we need more fields.’ The question isn’t entirely about need. It’s what should really be here?”

“This is [becoming] the Spring Hill soccer complex, not a park for all citizens,” she said.

The park and its use will be the subject of a public hearing at the McLean Community Center on Thursday, Sept. 4.

IN GREAT FALLS, two private groups have also proposed public-private uses at Riverbend Park.

One, Discover Creek Children’s Museum in Washington, wants to conduct children’s programs there.

Another, the Great Falls Episcopal School, wants to lease or buy parkland to develop a private non-profit school for K-6th graders.

“That is one of the things I keep wanting to hear more from the citizens about,” Fay said. “I know we had asked [Dranesville District Supervisor Stuart] Mendelsohn’s office to go back and talk about those issues, and see how they want us to treat those [proposals].

“We are happy to explore them, but they need to tell us if this is an area they have interest in, or not.

“I got conflicting responses [from citizens],” Fay said.

But Cathy Mayes, president of the Friends of River Bend Park, said citizens at a July 15 meeting with the park staff and officials were unaware of the proposal for a school.

“I don’t think most people in the room knew about it,” she said. “I went up to Mr. [Tom] Macy and said ‘I am surprised you didn’t bring it up.’”

The school supporters plan to make a formal proposal to the FCPA on Aug. 6, Mayes said.

“The notion of leasing out park space for private use doesn’t sit well with me, and it doesn’t sit well with most of the Friends,” Mayes said. “There are certainly some big negatives to this.”

The proposal from Discovery Creek also raises issues, she said.

“I have not seen their proposal, [but] if they are talking about taking over and leasing and occupying the facility, I think we’re going to have the same issues,” she said.

“There is not enough facility to be turning it over to folks. It is not surplus. It is being used...unless you close the park.”

Making money meet need “is a continuing budget challenge,” said Fay, who assumed his duties in March.

“We have many responsibilities. We are trying to do the best we can. When we had questioned [what to cut] when these [budget] cuts first came up, and they were looking around, and these areas had not been impacted, now it was their turn,” he said of the cuts at Riverbend.

The budget situation, Fay said, “is not appearing to have any hope of improving. It is going to require us to be a little more creative,” he said. “The budget is certainly a vexing situation.”

“There are issues at Colvin Run Mill and Dranesville Tavern, as well.”