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Serpentine Barrens a Slippery Issue

Park and Planning contemplates trails, equestrian access in rare ecosystem.

Palatine Drive in Potomac is a funny looking place. There are very few trees for an area just above “the Glen,” and much of the landscaping residents have planted there is withered or dead.

It sounds like an ecological nightmare, but environmental planners say it’s really an ecological wonder — the result of being on top of a globally rare serpentine rock outcropping.

The Palatine subdivision and parts of Glen and Piney Meetinghouse Roads bisect the serpentine barrens, one of the best remaining examples of an ecosystem that that crops up in only a few places along Atlantic states between Georgia and New York. (See box.)

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.

“Our focus is to attempt to acquire some of the most special places in the county and the serpentine barrens ranked as our highest priority for acquisition,” said Dominic Quattrocchi, a senior planner and arborist at Park and Planning.

“You have these small outcroppings of these unique plant communities that really exist no where else,” said Michael Stringer, another planner.

The acquisition installments will be complete in July, 2006, Quattrocchi and other county planners are currently developing a management plan for the future conservation park — one that balances the conservation and public use objectives of Legacy Open Space.

That isn’t easy. At a Sept. 16 public meeting at Adventure Park on Glen Road to take input on Park and Planning’s management proposals, Glen Road area residents fought over equestrian access, traffic management and other issues surrounding the serpentine barrens conservation park.

Planners discussed three alternatives for park development. All three would include hiker-only loop trails in the 270-acre north serpentine parcel and additional loop trails in the 70-acre south serpentine. Alternative A is the most conservation-oriented, adding only interpretive signage and the option to have naturalist tours in south serpentine. Equestrian access would be limited to existing easements that do not belong to Park and Planning, though Park and Planning hopes to shift them within park boundaries so they can take over maintenance.

Alternative B mirrors A with the addition of an interpretive pavilion and parking in south serpentine.

Alternative C would open the south serpentine loop trails to bicyclists and equestrians and provide both parking and signage in south serpentine and an interpretive pavilion and parking in north serpentine.

Park and Planning staff will formalize their recommendation in the next two months and forward it to the Planning Board, which can make changes and must vote to approve a final management plan, governing the development and trail access issues. No date has been set, but the Board is expected to take up the issue in November.

Residents complained that they had received little notice of the meeting and that Park and Planning’s outreach was a cursory gesture when none of the three proposed development alternatives incorporated some residents’ desires for the property.

Laurana Reed, a more than 20-year Glen Road resident called the management plan a "fait accompli."

“I just know that their minds are made up and we are just the little people,” she said. “It’s upsetting to me. I live right next door to it.”

“I’ve worked hard to buy a home out here,” said Sprigg Lynn, another longtime Glen Road resident. “I grew up here in a country environment and it seems like somebody in an office thought, 'Well hey, let's make this plan and shove it down somebody’s throat.'”

Lynn repeatedly asked planners if they intended to come back to the community with additional proposals — ones that included interior horse access to the park.

“They said they were not going to come back with a ‘D’ and an ‘E,’” according to Reed. “They let you come in and voice your opinion and then that’s it.”

Reed also said that the environmental impacts of allowing horse access have been exaggerated, and that the likely equestrian users would be those living nearby to the park because people going to the trouble of loading a horse trailer would likely go to a park with more acreage.

“Entitlements don’t stop because someone has a horse or does not have a horse. If they’re not going to have one human being walk through there, that’s fine with me,” she said. “But if they’re going to open it up, we need connecting horse trails.”

Planners told a different story.

Quattorcchi stressed that the serpentine barrens will be a conservation park, not a regional park like Cabin John, and that recreational uses in conservation parks are limited to educational purposes.

He did not take a position on allowing equestrian access. That would be up to the Planning Board, he said. But he did address some of the residents’ points.

“Depending on who you talk to, horses cause no impact. There’s a good amount of data that basically erosion on trails from horses and droppings … will cause an amount of impact well beyond hikers,” he said. “We’re looking at how do we protect the health of that park long term. One thing we have to look it is precedent.  The Soldiers Delight park … they restrict horse use in there based on [that] data.”

Quattrocchi also said that horse riders should remember that they aren’t losing any existing equestrian access — though they could gain additional access under one of the proposals.

“In essence those people were always trespassing on the property,” he said. “The whole messy issue of squatters' rights comes up. Did they by the informal use of those trails establish an informal easement?”

“If this were a regional [park] it would be a different issue,” he said.

Members of the West Montgomery County Citizens Association, including President Ginny Barnes, immediate Past President Carol Van Dam Falk, and Susanne Lee, all of whom live close to the barrens, also advocated for the park’s conservation purpose.

“The purpose of purchasing this property was to conserve it, not to make it a recreational facility,” Barnes said.

“We have to appreciate and preserve what’s there. And personally from what I’ve heard tonight I think these guys get it, I think they’re on our side,” said Van Dam Falk.

LESSONS FROM BLOCKHOUSE POINT

Allowing equestrian access in an ecologically sensitive park is not a new issue.

In October, 2004, the Planning Board, defying staff recommendations, opted to allow limited equestrian access inside Blockhouse Point Conservation Park along the C&O Canal in a split 3-2 vote.

In addition to an existing trail that parallels River Road, equestrians will be able to access the trails that lead to Potomac River overlooks in the Blockhouse Point park, which, like the serpentine barrens, is home to a number of rare, threatened and endangered species. But the equestrians are not allowed yet, pending a Park and Planning implementation plan. The access granted is considered tentative — Park and Planning vowed to rescind it if conservation or usage issues arise.

Blockhouse is a valid comparison to the serpentine barrens plans, said Dominic Quattrocchi, a planner overseeing the serpentine management plan, but there are differences too.

“It’s a little bit different in that Callithea Farm is right next to Blockhouse Point,” he said, and the presence of the county-owned horse facility gives horse access special prerogative there.

The ecological considerations in the parks are also different, Quattrocchi said.

As in the case of Blockhouse Point, “It is possible what that the staff recommends will be one thing and the Planning Board will do another thing,” he said. “The greatest similarity is it will go the board and the board will make a decision on the issue.”