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Last Chance for Nation’s River

Potomac Corridor named one of 10 areas most threatened by development, says Scenic American.

Joya Cox has seen a lot of changes in Northern Virginia over the past 50 years, not all of them for the better.

From her home overlooking one of the most biologically diverse sections of the Potomac, Cox has seen eagles nesting and muddy waters churning over an increasingly at-risk ecological preserve.

Those risks led the non-profit organization Scenic America to designate the Middle Potomac Scenic Corridor as one of 10 “Last Chance Landscapes” this year. The 42-mile section of the river from Point Of Rocks, Md., to the confluence with Rock Creek in the District includes the Potomac Gorge through McLean and Arlington, and the Chain Bridge Flats in front of Cox’s home.

Cox lives on the High Point property, a nearly three-acre parcel of land immediately west of Chain Bridge, and one of the few private riverfront properties in Arlington. On Monday, Feb. 24, Cox welcomed conservationists and members of the press to her home on Chain Bridge Road to show first-hand the importance of planning to save the river.

Since she inherited the property in 1978, she has considered it her duty to care for the land and the water, like the government officials who set aside most of Arlington’s riverfront land for parkland.

“It’s not really mine,” she said. “My mother gave it to me, and I feel as though I have a responsibility to protect it.”

FARTHER UPSTREAM, thought, and just across the county line in neighboring McLean, Cox sees evidence of changes. Her 77-year-old house is set back from the river, among the trees atop a bluff. But more and more of McLean’s riverfront mansions are built overhanging the river. One neighbor destroyed trees on the steep slope leading to the river in order to build a 35-car garage.

Cox sees that kind of development as “conspicuous consumption,” and wanted to make sure that nothing of the sort would ever happen on her land. So in 2000 she contacted the Potomac Conservancy to donate a conservation easement.

SUCH DONATIONS MEAN landowners give up some of their development rights for the public good. “It restricts all future development to the footprint of the house,” explained Meredith Lathbury, land protection director for the Potomac Conservancy, and the attorney who worked on the easement. The easement also includes provisions requiring care of trees on the property.

Easement donations also last forever; so even after Cox passes away and the property is auctioned, no one can build a structure wider or taller than Cox’s house.

Cox benefits from the deal as well. Federal income tax deductions, reduced real estate assessments and ultimately reduced estate taxes are some of the financial incentives for donating an easement, Lathbury said.

“Partly it was a spiritual yearning to keep this, and partly it was practical,” said Cox. Her mother bought the property in 1956 for $50,000. This year it was assessed at about $3.5 million, and that means heavy tax bills.

TAX BREAKS and lower tax assessments don’t compare to the value that conservation has for the public, Potomac Conservancy officials say. Development along the river doesn’t just threaten the scenery, said Matthew Logan, Conservancy president.

Lost trees along the banks of the river lead to erosion, which means more soil builds up in the river. Arlington has yet to feel the effects of that, but Logan says it’s only a matter of time. “Sediment is considered the greatest pollution problem in the Potomac River,” he said. Recently, built-up sediment near a Fairfax County intake pipe lead county officials to build an extension farther into the river, but only after a court battle with the state of Maryland.

Scenic America’s recognition of the river’s beauty helps raise awareness but doesn’t tell the whole story, he said. “They’re very much looking at it from the perspective of the scenery,” said Logan. “We view it as an indicator of other forms of degradation.”

Conservation easements can help prevent further degradation, Logan said.

Since Cox’s donation in 2000, five other landowners in the 11-mile Potomac Gorge have donated easements. The Conservancy has secured 3,800 acres of land throughout the Potomac watershed.

But the river faces other threats, say conservationists. Several proposed power plants around Leesburg would affect the health of the river downstream, including in Arlington.

CHAIN BRIDGE FLATS contain over 150 rare and endangered species of plants and micro-organisms. Those species have adapted to the patterns of flooding in that stretch of river.

But power plants, which pump water from the river to cool machinery, could alter flood patterns and the flow of the river. Impacts of power plants could be minimized if they are located in already industrialized areas, Logan said.

Local jurisdictions can regulate riverfront development with “overlay zoning,” said Lathbury, but Virginia’s history of protecting individuals’ property rights makes passage of such ordinances difficult.

A revised Chesapeake Bay Preservation Ordinance, adopted by the county board last month, is not considered an overlay ordinance, but Lathbury said it is a step in the right direction. The ordinance established protected areas along streams throughout the county in hopes of protecting water before it even reaches the Potomac.