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Belle Haven Grapples with History

Will county plans for a small but historic fort create a tourist attraction?

Last week, the county Park Authority unveiled a plan to restore a rare piece of history: a Civil War-era fort that has been left in benign neglect for almost 150 years. But the fort’s location in a Belle Haven traffic circle has created controversy in the neighborhood. Some residents are asking whether a restored fort will become a tourist attraction only a few feet away from their front lawns.

When the Civil War ended, the 63 forts that ringed Washington to protect the Union Capitol became abruptly obsolete. Many were plowed into farmland. Those that weren’t fell victim to the roads, businesses and houses that became increasingly dense in the 20th century. But Fort Willard, a battery of 15 guns built to protect the southern approaches to Alexandria along Accotink Road — now Fort Hunt, survived. For most of its history the fort lay on land owned by the Olmi family, first a farm, then, in the 1930s, the Belle Haven subdivision. Belle Haven’s planners protected Fort Willard by turning it into a 1.62 acre traffic circle.

But in the 1970s, Gene Olmi began to wonder why he was paying property taxes on a forested traffic circle, he said last week at a public meeting. In 1978, Olmi donated Fort Willard Circle to the county, which made it a park, then practically ignored it for almost 30 years.

As a surviving remnant of the Civil War Defenses of Washington, Fort Willard is in select company. There are only three others: Fort Marcy near Chain Bridge, owned by the National Park Service; Fort Meyer, an active military base at Arlington Cemetery and Fort Ward, a large, restored fort and picnic area in Alexandria. It is Fairfax County’s only example of the defenses that bristled around D.C., each fort carefully measured by its distance from the Capitol dome — Willard is just over eight miles.

In a newly released planning document for Fort Willard Park, County Park officials credit the neighborhood for saving the fort. “The relative isolation of this site within a quiet residential neighborhood has allowed for the archaeological and cultural features at Fort Willard historic site to remain relatively undisturbed and only subject to the natural processes of erosion and tree growth.”

Now, the walls and structures of the fort are obscured in a tangle of trees and shrubs. The Park Authority has proposed to thin out the trees in about one-quarter of the park, encompassing the main gate, two gun batteries and portions of the powder magazine and “bombproof” bunker. Two reproduction cannons would be installed, the shape of the earthworks and structures would be made visible, and signs would tell people what they are seeing. Outside the walls, a circular path could lead around the circle, lined with benches, trashcans and a gathering place for people in the community.

ON DEC. 12, about 20 people gathered in the cafeteria at Belle View Elementary for a public meeting to discuss the Park Authority’s proposal for their neighborhood. Four members of the Park Commission, including Mount Vernon commissioner Gil McCutcheon, were present to hear people’s reactions.

Cauley Deringer said he spoke for the entire board of the Belle Haven Citizens Association, of which he is vice-president, in approving the new master plan. But he stressed that the neighborhood did not want its view of the circle to be changed significantly by the fort’s restoration. He asked that the entrance be left understated, that all signs should be inside the earthworks and that the outer area not be overcrowded with benches, to retain as much green space as possible.

But several people condemned the project because they fear it will destroy the quiet of their neighborhood. George Ludlow said the park was a poor way to spend tax money, and could become another stop for the tour buses that ply the George Washington Parkway on their way to the Mount Vernon Estate and other historic sites. “We’re going to have strangers coming into the neighborhood with a risk to our children,” he said.

Betty Heilig suggested that every neighbor should have been polled before any decisions were made about the park. She worried that if amenities like benches and green space were created, people from outside the neighborhood could apply for permits to use them. But the Park Authority’s Michael Rierson explained that as a county park, Fort Willard has been open to outsiders since 1978. He added that permits are only required for parties of 75 or more, a large number for a park of less than two acres that is covered with trees and bushes.

Responding to a question about how the Park Authority’s plan would be paid for, Rierson said there are no county funds available for the project, which will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. He said the Park Authority has been working with the Olmi family, the Belle Haven Citizens Association and other private groups to secure money for the improvements. The park may also be chosen as the recipient of some of the bond money that will be in a 2008 referendum.

A final anonymous question submitted on an index card asked “How will the park authority keep us from being overwhelmed with cars so numerous that our children are in peril?”

“This is a very common concern,” Rierson said. He explained the Park Authority thinks the size of the park and its isolated nature in a residential neighborhood will prevent large crowds. He said small numbers of Civil War buffs and “respectful historians” are the only outside visitors planners believe will be attracted to the new and improved Fort Willard. “This is not a Manassas, Bull Run. This is not a Gettysburg. This is a very small site.” He stressed that the plan does not call for any parking spaces around the park.

BUT AFTER THE MEETING, George Ludlow’s wife, Isin, said her fears had not been allayed. “They didn’t want to maintain it for years and years and years and now they want to spend millions of dollars on it,” she said, adding that although the plan may seem innocuous, there is no guarantee that the county will not decide a decade from now to expand the investment to attract more people, forever changing the character of the neighborhood.

The plan does call for signage in the fort, and possibly other measures, to link it to other area destinations, so that “the public will be able to trace significant events through a series of parks (both local and national) across the region.”

“This is the first step,” said Heilig. “Once they put your tax money in it, then you’d like to come see it too.”

But Steven Peterson, owner of the Peterson Real Estate Company, which drafted a plan for the exterior of the park so that neighbors could use it to walk and socialize, said he hopes the controversy over historic renovations inside the circle won’t prevent his initial plan from being implemented – benches, a walking path, and well-tended open-space for the neighborhood’s holiday gatherings that occur about five times a year. “We started out with the exterior issue and now it’s turned into another one,” he said.