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Votes

Potomac’s New Park

Planning Board approves access and management plan for Serpentine Barrens, a rare forest ecosystem.

Visitors who come to Potomac to enjoy nature in places like the C&O Canal National Historical Park and Blockhouse Point can soon add the Serpentine Barrens Conservation Park to their list.

In a 5-0 vote, the Montgomery County Planning Board accepted a proposed park management plan that will create hiking trails but severely restrict equestrian access in the new, 341-acre park between Travilah and Piney Meetinghouse Roads in Potomac.

The Board voted down a second proposal from Park and Planning Commission staff that would have changed the park name to “Serpentine Oaks.”

Technically, the Board vote only approved parts of the management plan dealing with park access and issues affecting the surrounding community. Park planners will complete a more detailed document — including everything from trash pickup times to park police surveillance — in the spring and submit it for approval by the Superintendent of Parks.

“There’s a whole host of small details,” said Dominic Quattrocchi, a senior planner and arborist at Park and Planning who worked on the serpentine plan.

Planners hope construction and installation of exhibits will start in the summer. Parts of the park should be open to public users in less than a year.

THE SERPENTINE barrens area is one of the best remaining examples of a rare ecosystem built on lime-colored rock and acidic soil.

The Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission began acquiring approximately 400 acres of the serpentine barrens in 2002 through its Legacy Open Space Program, which was established in 2001 as a 10-year, $100 million program to preserve ecologically and historically significant land in Montgomery County. The acquisition installments will be complete in July 2006.

The land is in three separate parcels: the main section is the 258-acre North Serpentine, which lies about ¼ mile above the 65-acre South Serpentine. A third, 18-acre parcel sits to the east, across Piney Meetinghouse Road.

Planners had proposed three alternatives that allowed varying amounts of access and infrastructure development in the new park. They chose alternative B, the “middle road” option that includes an interpretive pavilion in South Serpentine, small parking lots for accessing both North and South Serpentine, and equestrian access in North Serpentine limited to existing equestrian easements, which fall within the park boundary but do not penetrate the interior forest.

All three proposals created hiker-only loop trails in North and South Serpentine and interpretive signs about serpentine geology, flora and fauna. The plan also asks park naturalists to work with Montgomery County Public Schools to develop special programs to incorporate into MCPS science curricula.

THE MOST TRYING question for planners was whether or how much to allow equestrian access to the new park. Many residents near the park are riders and said in earlier meetings that they have long had access to the land and that allowing different types of users in the new park is consistent with Park and Planning’s goals.

But conservationists argued that horses can cause serious damage to sensitive parkland by promoting erosion and helping to spread invasive species. Allowing equestrian access in an ecologically sensitive park is not a new issue.

A year ago, the Planning Board, overruled staff recommendations and voted to allow limited equestrian access inside Blockhouse Point Conservation Park along the C&O Canal in a split 3-2 vote.

In written testimony to the Board Nov. 17, West Montgomery County Citizens Association President Ginny Barnes said that the Blockhouse Point decision created similar expectations for Serpentine, but that horse access would be too damaging.

“In this park, as with Blockhouse, there is so much at stake if you allow access beyond foot traffic. You have to take the high road,” she said in an interview. “I didn’t say we’re opposed to horses. I said we support the easement trails that the staff suggested should remain” but that no further access should be granted.

Another West Montgomery member read Barnes’ testimony Thursday while Barnes was at a banquet in Potomac honoring her and her husband George Barnes for their years of civic activism.

For Ginny Barnes, much of that time has been spent working on environmental planning issues and protecting the serpentine barrens has been a particularly important issue.

“I’ve been involved with the serpentine for nine years, waiting for this moment,” said Ginny Barnes, who sits on the Legacy Open Space advisory committee. “I’m really excited about it.”

She opposed the name change proposal, but generally had high praise for the access plan.

“Given what the Planning Board did Thursday night, we couldn’t start this new conservation park out on a better footing,” she said.

SIX PEOPLE testified at the meeting: three in support of greater equestrian access and three in support of a conservation focus that would mostly exclude horses.

David Tobin of Equestrian Partners in Conservation asked that the decision to exclude horses from interior trails in the Serpentine Park be deferred until the Blockhouse “experiment” is more thoroughly examined.

“I work with public land and issues of invasive species,” Tobin said. “Based on that experience, I do not share the view that horses contribute either to erosion or to the spread of invasive species.”

But Board members said that the serpentine barrens are more sensitive than the heavily protected Blockhouse Point.

“The serpentine barrens are the most fragile land that I have seen in Montgomery County,” Commissioner Meredith Wellington said.

Commissioner Wendy Perdue agreed. She opposed equestrian access in Blockhouse point, but said that even a positive outcome there wouldn’t imply that the same result is likely in the serpentine.

“If it turns out that it’s not so bad there, that doesn’t tell me it won’t be bad in this park,” she said. “If it turns out it’s a disaster there, that tells me it would be really bad here.”