One of the biggest attractions at Blockhouse Point Conservation Park is the two Potomac River overlooks, set on stark cliffs at the end of forest trails.
The trails are only open to hikers, but many of the visitors to little-known Blockhouse come to ride horses, including a large number from Callithea Farm, a contiguous property operated as a horse farm. The equestrians say they should have access to the overlooks, too.
Conservationists say that allowing the horses into ecologically sensitive areas is a recipe for disaster in one of the county’s best-preserved natural habitats and historical sites.
The equestrian access debate has been the most divisive issue in a larger dialogue about the future of the conservation area.
The Montgomery County Planning Board approved the proposed Blockhouse Point Conservation Park Master Plan Oct. 21, while agreeing to provisionally allow equestrian access to the overlooks in a split 3-2 vote.
The Master Plan, which guides land decisions for the park in conjunction with the Potomac Subregion Master Plan and the countywide Park Recreation and Open Space Master Plan, generally makes few changes to the park.
It recommends more attentive resource preservation, increased park police presence, improvements to park trails and signage, and several acquisitions of adjacent land not currently owned by the county.
Among those acquisitions is Callithea Farm, which the Parks and Planning Commission began buying up last year in installments that will continue through 2006. Callithea will be maintained as an equestrian farm but is also slated to be the site of an interpretive center that would focus on the role of Montgomery County in the Civil War. Building the center within the current park boundaries would be inconsistent with the approved uses of conservation park land, planners say.
“I think the staff have done their job, and they came up with a plan that we pretty much agreed with,” said Ron LaCoss, environmental education chair of the Montgomery County Sierra Club. “If it were our decision, we would literally leave it the way it is.”
Currently equestrians have access to a single trail that parallels River Road.
"The bottom line is that for 18 years under the current Master Plan, horses have not been allowed in certain areas. They go there anyway. They think they own the place," said Ginny Barnes, environmental chair of the West Montgomery County Citizens Association.
"[Planners] did all this stuff in the Master Plan to get away from sensitive areas … and then the Planning Board turns around and makes a nod to the preservation efforts of the staff," allowing the equestrian access, Barnes said. "It's not that I have problem with horses. Horses are historically a part of Potomac. But there are certain places where they belong and places where they don’t belong."
“We’ve been trying to get Park and Planning to nail down what exactly is a conservation park. … They’ve refused to define it. It’s defined in their literature at a primitive area with only passive use. Passive use to us meant basically hiking,” LaCoss said.
“They’ve never specifically stated that. [They have] little wiggle room, in other words.”
That wiggle room is at issue, especially because the Park and Planning Commission now owns Callithea Farm, some board members said.
Callithea Farm advocates have asked to exclusively administer equestrian access to the overlooks, according to park and planning documents.
“If this were a development team asking for this, we would be killing them, killing them for the request of exclusivity and special prerogative that’s implied here. And I see this as no different from that standpoint,” said Commissioner Allison Bryant.
“The fact that we own a horse farm next to a conservation park, for me, does not change the fact that it’s a conservation park,” said Commissioner Wendy Purdue. “If we didn’t own the horse farm, we would be all over a private operator that said, ‘Well, I own a horse farm next door. You have to let me ride in the park.’ We would simply not give credence to that. The fact that we own the horse farm doesn’t change my analysis of that.
“I have very, very deep concerns if we open this up.”
The board majority voted to grant the access in spite of the recommendation of Planning Board staff not do so. The staff report recommended that the board approve the Conservation Master Plan with the addition of a trail management plan that did not include the equestrian access.
The staff report noted that the trail concept plan appended to the Master Plan satisfies the equestrians’ two highest stated recreational priorities, but said that allowing equestrian access to the overlooks was impractical and ecologically unsound.
Bryant had earlier introduced a motion to accept the staff recommendation, which he and Purdue strongly supported.
“The board has to from time to time say yes, we’re building in Matthew Henson, that’s a yes, we’re going to do it. But we have to also say no,” Purdue said. “Because if we do not also say no, we are not credible, and we will have trouble. From here on out I think we will have a huge problem of credibility the next time we say yes and the environmental community is in saying, ‘When are you ever going to say no?’ We don’t have an answer. We can’t say, ‘Oh, well for conservation parks.’ So this one is not hard for me. The staff got it right, and I absolutely support the motion.”
Given the potential for the Blockhouse decision to set a precedent, “I think Park and Planning is a little concerned they might be opening Pandora’s Box,” LaCoss said.
Commissioner Meredith Wellington later introduced the successful motion that will change the designation of a trail stretching from Callithea Farm to the river to “mixed use: hiker and equestrian.”
But equestrians can’t saddle up just yet. The trail remains closed to riders until the Planning Board staff investigates issues surrounding implementing the change and brings their findings back to the board for approval. “It’s got to come back to the board before the actual shared use begins,” board chairman Derick Berlage said.
Berlage was referring to an implementation plan that would be prepared by Parks and Planning staff. "That plan would look at environmental impacts of this proposal balanced against the recreational benefits," as well as evaluating the costs associated with bringing the current hiker-only trail up to equestrian standards, said John Hench, Parks and Planning Park Planning and Analysis Unit supervisor.
Those costs might be signifcant. "In Callithea there would also be the need for the installation of fencing. … I also suspect that the current parking situation at Callithea would need to be looked at because in effect if we’re going to be providing access to other equestrians beyond the ones boarding their horses at Callithea the parking facility will need to be modified and enlarged," Hench said.
The implementation is not part of the curent work program, which directs the staff's efforts for each fiscal year. "It's not something we are currently focused on," Hench said.
“Even after all that is done, there is no guarantee that it would be shared use trail forever, because it might turn out that we can’t make it work,” Commissioner John Robinson added. “If the other trails end up being ridden on, or there are problems with this one trail, then the access to the park is going to be terminated. Pure and simple. So this is not a permanent decision, it’s an experiment, in which we’re looking for in essence empirical results to tell us a little more carefully whether this is reasonable or whether we’re dealing with perhaps undue expectations on one side or the other.”