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Steep Slopes, Woods, Protected

Open-space program acquires ‘missing piece’ of Watts Branch stream valley.

Montgomery County’s Legacy Open Space Program — which protects environmentally and historically significant lands — has acquired an 8.3 acre site in Potomac’s Watts Branch Stream Valley Park.

The Montgomery County Planning Board voted unanimously to acquire the site, a steeply sloped swath of undeveloped land on the west side of Glen Road opposite its intersection with South Glen Road. Board vice-chair Wendy Perdue was not present for the vote.

The cost of the acquisition was $1.062 million, according to Bill Gries, land acquisition specialist with the Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission. Gries negotiated the acquisition over the last six months with Joseph Blocher of the land-use law firm Linowes and Blocher. Cahoon is Of Counsel with the firm, meaning that he is an employee who advises it in litigation issues.

The Cahoon property was initially identified by the Legacy Open Space program as a Class III site — one that needed further review before being earmarked for acquisition. Last year, it was tentatively changed to a Class I site — an active acquisition category — pending the approval of the County Council.

That never became necessary because Gries completed contract negotiations last month without ever invoking the powers of the council.

“Just the designation of the planning board allowed us to spend Legacy money on it,” Legacy Open Space program manager Brenda Sandberg said.

The site was also a recommended park acquisition in the Potomac Subregion Master Plan passed in 2002.

The property owner, David L. Cahoon, is a former County Councilmember, County Attorney, and Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge. Cahoon currently serves as chairman of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Case Review Board, commissioned by the Archbishop to review allegations of sexual abuse against minors by clergy and make recommendations on the suitability of candidates for ministry.

THE LEGACY OPEN SPACE was developed as a 10-year, $100 million program to preserve ecologically and historically significant land in six categories: natural resources, water supply protection, heritage resources, greenway connections, farmland and rural open spaces, and urban open space.

To date, the program has preserved 2,280 acres of county land, through both acquisitions and easements.

In addition to $23 million of county money, more than $12 million from the state and nearly $2 million in private and municipal donations have gone to protecting at least 18 distinct sites.

The Cahoon site is designated as a natural resource protection area.

“It’s basically right across the road from the stream. It’s on very steep slopes. It’s probably technically possible to develop it but it would be extremely difficult; it would cause a lot of environmental damage,” said Sandberg, who noted that several years ago there were discussions of developing the site, but the idea met strong opposition from neighbors who were concerned about environmental issues.

“Steep slopes adjacent to stream valleys are important areas. … You’re far more likely to have erosion and sediment flowing into the stream, which then damages the stream,” Sandberg said. “We’re trying to preserve a wide swath of forest and natural resources and protecting steep slopes is a key thing.”

Though small, the Cahoon property was considered a “missing piece” in the otherwise contiguous Watts Branch Stream Valley Park, an environmentally-sensitive “greenway” stretching through Potomac. In fact, the Cahoon property covered most but not all of the breadth of the long, narrow park, leaving a small thread under county control. Now essentially the entire stream valley is protected.

"I'm just ecstatic. This property is like a critical piece of the puzzle that's been missing," said Ginny Barnes, a member of Legacy Open Space's advisory board, who originally nominated the property for inclusion in the program. Barnes lives just across the Watts Branch stream from the site.

"Because the slopes are so steep [and] because the two streams come together as a wildlife corridor it was really important to preserve it," Barnes said. "I mean where are they going to go? Across Glen Road?"

THE CAHOON SITE is likely to be the last Potomac site acquired under Legacy for several years. The program already secured two large portions of the Serpentine Barrens, a rare forest growing out of serpentine rock and home to numerous rare, threatened and endangered species. The property is officially being acquired in installments, with the fourth of five coming at the beginning of the fiscal year in July.

At the same time, Park and Planning will make the fourth of five installment acquisitions of Callithea Farm, the horse farm next to Blockhouse Point Conservation Park. Calliethea will become parkland and may include an interpretive center for Blockhouse, while still being operated as a horse farm. It was a normal acquisition and not part of the Legacy Open Space program, Gries said.

"We’re also looking at the River Road shale barrens. … But I’m not involved in any active acquisitions with any of those owners," he said.

And with other green spaces in Potomac protected either as county parkland (e.g. Blockhouse Point) or federal land (e.g. C&O Canal National Historical Park), the program is unlikely to focus more attention here.

Legacy officials have signaled their intention to acquire sites in categories where they’ve so far had little success — such as rural open spaces, most likely in the upper county.