With the Town of Herndon set next week to unveil nearly $300,000 in improvements made to Runnymede Park over the course of the last seven months, some residents are once again calling for a town plan to construct an official nature center in the park.
The improvement project, which was completed last week at nearly 50 percent of its original estimated price tag, includes an increased parking area, picnic pavilions, water fountains and grills as well as a handicapped-accessible trail, according to town staff. The town is set to host its official ribbon-cutting on June 26.
Passed by Herndon’s previous Town Council last year, it was originally part of a larger comprehensive improvement package to the park that would have included an official nature center. After taking office last summer, Herndon’s current Town Council removed the more than $1 million in funding for the center from the town’s capital improvement project budget, citing a desire for a tighter budget.
The existing pieces of the project were partly funded by a federal grant of $125,000 that required a matching commitment from the Town of Herndon, according to town staff.
The nature center funding has since been postponed for an unspecified future year, according to the town’s budget.
ORIGINALLY PART of a more comprehensive park improvement vision, the changes made to the park are useful on their own without a nature center, according to John Dudzinsky, community forester for the Town of Herndon.
"At this point they can actually stand alone by themselves," said Dudzinsky. "The picnic pavilion will help with families who want to come and spend time in the park … and of course there is the [handicapped-accessible] trail."
And there will be a continued effort over time to increase the natural aspects of some of the improvements, including tree and shrub-plantings, Dudzinsky said.
"I think as a little more time passes we’ll be able to soften it up and it will really look nice," he said. "Over time, we’ll see it really start to blend in with the park."
WHILE THE FRIENDS of Runnymede Park, a non-profit group that provides nature education, continues to host nature appreciation events, a concentrated effort from the town needs to be made if the park is to live up to its full potential, according to Dave Swan, president of the organization.
"With this first step, the town has taken some progress towards the full use of the park as an interpretive facility," Swan said, "but all the other improvements are pointless and fruitless unless there is a nature center."
Swan said that the Friends of Runnymede Park have continued their efforts to advocate for the center as an effective and useful addition to the town’s recreational programming.
For Herndon residents Ann Csonka and her husband, former Herndon town council member John DeNoyer, who helped the town apply for the federal grant, the additions seriously jeopardize its function as a natural park in absence of the proposed nature center.
"With the exception of the handicapped trail … the improvements tend to disrespect and diminish the intended atmosphere and the character and substance of this park land," Csonka and DeNoyer said in an e-mail. "The greatest value and importance of Runnymede Park is not measured by built improvements; it is defined by the assets and atmosphere of the natural area and the existing natural infrastructure."
AN INCREASED NUMBER of picnic pavilions, the handicapped trail and the widened parking area allow a greater number of area residents the opportunity to take advantage of the park, according to Herndon Vice Mayor Dennis Husch.
"There was a master plan [for the improvements] and that was what was approved and we followed that," Husch said. "I think the elements of the master plan, now that they have been implemented, stand alone … and definitely make it more usable for our residents."
The nature center, while it has not been abandoned as a future possibility for the park, was removed from the budget in accordance with what Husch said was a general public desire to not spend town funds on its construction.
"The taxpayers of Herndon didn’t want to foot the bill" for the nature center, he said, noting that the center’s completion is listed in the Town Council’s comprehensive 20-year vision statement. "I make decisions based on the priorities that are expressed to me by the citizens and this is what we saw at that point."
While council member Harlon Reece agreed that the improvements made to the park are a positive step for park patrons, he said that funding for a nature center will have to be revisited if the park is to ever live up to its full potential.
"I’m still continuing to view this as a step towards a nature center," he said. "I don’t know when it’s going to happen, just that I’m not giving up."
Herndon Mayor Steve DeBenedittis did not respond to interview requests.
SINCE RUNNYMEDE PARK is focused more on its natural qualities and its plant and animal life, any improvements that are proposed for it should be done with a desire to further education and appreciation of nature, Csonka said.
"It’s not a standard Fairfax County park, people want to come to it to see plants, not because there is a parking lot," she said. "If somebody doesn’t take an active responsibility for doing programs there, the purpose of the park may be questioned later."
Csonka noted that periodically over the course of the last 20 years questions have been raised publicly about razing much of the nature of the park to be used for athletic programming.
Still, Swan said that he remains optimistic when looking towards the future.
"I see this as a solid first step and hopefully a commitment to getting to the park’s full potential," he said. "A lot of it right now is education and talking about what is possible and once the Town Council is ready, we’ll be prepared to help wherever we can."