When Public and Natural Resources Collide

When Public and Natural Resources Collide

Group raises concerns about library expansion’s impact on wetland.


Raised walkways allow bikers and walkers to traverse Dyke Marsh.

As Fairfax County becomes more densely populated, there are more opportunities for one public amenity to pose a threat to another.

In response to a mid-September public meeting on the planned expansion of Martha Washington Library, Friends of Dyke Marsh President Glenda Booth sent a letter to the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and other offices expressing her organization’s concerns about the project’s impact on the nearby, nationally recognized wetland.

The 380-acre Dyke Marsh lies along the Potomac River, just east of the library, and the local watershed runs downhill past the library to the marsh, which is already in need of restoration. In an interview, Booth said the marsh was excavated for gravel from the 1930s into the ’50s and then used as a dumping ground for construction debris in the ’60s.

A massive congressional bill that would have, among many other, larger projects, authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to accept funds from the National Park Service to restore the marsh was recently vetoed by President George Bush.

In her letter, Booth thanked the county for its community outreach efforts regarding the library expansion and for seeking a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building designation, and she offered suggestions for mitigating the library’s effect on Dyke Marsh. Since the size of the building and parking lot are expected to increase significantly, she urged that as much storm water as possible be retained onsite with rain gardens, rain barrels, green roofs and pervious pavement.

The letter also urges the county not to destroy mature trees on the site, to plant more trees, to use native vegetation and natural landscaping, and to integrate the project into the upcoming Belle Haven Watershed Plan. It raises the question of how large the parking lot needs to be at a location on two bus lines and within walking distance of many homes, apartments and condominiums and asks that the county strive for a LEED rating higher than silver.

"Most runoff around here carries pollutants from roads and parking lots," Booth said in an interview. She noted that fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides also are often swept into the flow and that the runoff can erode stream banks while piling up sediment.

Martha Washington Library Branch Manager Barbara Rice said the county planned to expand the building from about 12,000 to about 17,000 square feet because the book collection and technology had outgrown its home. Because it is one of the oldest Fairfax County libraries, she said, "the technology wasn’t in existence when it was built." Rice said the new building would include more computer stations and a "better configuration" for the library collection.

SHE SAID THE LIBRARY was planned to close in late 2008 for a 16- to 18-month renovation, "if things are still on track." Meanwhile, the staff will be sent to Sherwood Regional Library, which is where the public will also be directed. "We’re about halfway through the process," she said, noting that the intention to expand the library was announced in 2000, and the money for the project came from the 2004 library bond referendum. Rice said designs for the renovated library still need to be created before the permitting process begins.

Fairfax County spokesman Brian Worthy said the county had received Booth’s letter, "and we are exploring things that we can do to address some of the concerns." He noted that the county is designing the building to meet the criteria for a silver LEED rating and taking steps to manage storm water, where no such measures are in place now.

Worthy said rain gardens would be created and runoff filtered and that the option of permeable pavement was being explored. The use of native vegetation, he said, is a Fairfax County standard. Some mature trees would have to come down, but the county will be planting new ones, said Worthy. "It’s being built in a very environmentally conscientious way."

Dyke Marsh is home to about 18,000 species of organisms, a population Booth called "very diverse." She noted that it is the only known nesting ground on the upper Potomac River for marsh wrens. The river, she said, was once lined with such marshes, making Dyke Marsh "a rare remanent." If runoff into the marsh increases, she said, "it will be another assault that would have to be addressed" in the restoration process.

Austin Durrer, spokesman for the office of U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8), said Moran and others planned to override the president’s veto of the bill authorizing the restoration this week. "It looks like we’re going to reach the two-thirds majority necessary," he said. The Dyke Marsh restoration was a minor part of what Durrer called "a huge bill," including reauthorization for water infrastructure nationwide.

Booth noted that the National Park Service is already in the initial stages of creating an environmental impact statement for a project that could restore up to 300 acres of the marsh.