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Letter: Keep Larger Perspective

To the Editor:

A mega issue is playing out under the guise of a mini issue in northern Mount Vernon district.

The Fairfax County Planning Commission is set to decide if part of the 22-acre Westgrove Park can be used as an interim, two-acre, off-leash dog park without a parking lot or adequate vehicular access. Of course, dogs and dog parks are popular and needed. Dogs are part of many of today’s families. But the real issue with Westgrove Park is not dogs.

Fairfax County is on a path to violate its respected, long-established, park master planning process and to miss an opportunity to create a natural corridor that could enhance the ecology and public health of our area. Let me explain.

As one of the older areas, northern Mount Vernon district is densely developed with few natural areas left. County-wide, six percent of the land is “vacant,” county statistics show, so time is running out to save what little remains.

No place in northern Virginia is pristine after 400 years of development nor can it be, but a virtually lifeless, two-acre monoculture of grass in the middle of a forest in Westgrove Park offers a rare opportunity for the county to demonstrate the power of restoration and natural corridors. A true restoration could provide some connectivity between the forested Mount Vernon Park and the Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve. Restoration could help preserve the Westgrove stream, rated the only "somewhat healthy" stream in the Belle Haven watershed. County studies show that the Belle Haven watershed has the most degraded streams in the county.

Ecologists tell us that the larger the parcel the healthier and the more likely it is to be rich in biodiversity. The Northern Virginia Regional Commission in fact, recently approved a plan to create conservation corridors in northern Virginia and to “restore degraded or missing connections.” More green infrastructure protects the public health and water quality, the Commission noted.

Restoring Westgrove to a more natural state could create such a corridor. If the proper process were being followed, proponents of restoration could offer restoration as an option, but by advancing this interim use at the behest of one group and for one use, others are frozen out, from naturalists to lacrosse players.

This process is wrong. Allowing any interim use pre-judges the more open, methodical master planning process which invites public involvement and consideration of multiple options and their impacts.

The Westgrove proposal follows a similar one to put a cellphone tower in heavily-wooded, nearby Lamond Park and raises a related issue. Developers of all stripes, including cellphone and dog park proponents, too often target parks and say, “There’s nothing there. It’s not being used.” This view ignores the free ecological services provided by nature. Trees clean the air and act as carbon sinks.

Wetlands absorb floodwaters. Vegetation stems runoff. Yet decision-makers do not factor in these free, natural services. Not every piece of land has to be used by humans.

“We human beings need to muster the courage to leave a few places alone,” said Olaus Murie, wildlife biologist. And in densely-developed suburbia, we should jump at the opportunity to restore degraded lands and expand natural corridors. Westgrove is one such opportunity.

Placing a 2-acre off-leash dog park in the middle of Westgrove Park may seem like a mini issue. It is a mega issue, however, when viewed from the larger ecological perspective.

Mary Jo Detweiler

Friends of Westgrove Park