The history of Hensley Park has become a battlefield in recent weeks, as city leaders clash with opponents of a proposal to hand over open space to a developer who wants to build a sports complex. At issue is whether or not Alexandria received money under the Land and Water Conservation Act to develop a stretch of land in the Eisenhower Valley into one of the city's most popular sports fields. If federal money was used to develop Hensley Park, the land would have restrictions forcing the city to keep it in public recreational use.
"There appears to be no legal impediment to the future development of the site because of federal funds," said City Attorney Jim Banks. "Typically whenever federal funds are used in the acquisition of property there is some indication in the title restricting future use of the property, and the feds are not shy at all about putting that kind of restriction in the title."
Not so fast, say critics of the proposal. They say that the deed tells only part of the story, and they'd like to see a 1977 grant application for money they city received from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Banks says city officials have not been able to locate the grant application, and state officials say they are still trying to track down the 1970s-era paperwork. Critics say those documents could be the missing piece of the puzzle that could prove Hensley Park was developed using federal money.
"His declaration is premature," said Bill Dickinson, chairman of the Alexandria Historical Society. "What the deed says is interesting, but it's not conclusive."
COURT RECORDS show that city leaders used the power of eminent domain to acquire the land back in 1975, paying $580,000 to Edwin Lynch who was acting as a trustee for a partnership known as Vernon M. Lynch and Sons. That land was developed into Cameron Run Park, which was a city park for more than a decade. In the late 1980s, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority leased the property to create Cameron Run Regional Park. In 1991, the park authority modified the lease to return part of the land back to city control. That part of the park was renamed in honor of Joseph Hensley, the longtime director of the Department of Recreation and Cultural Affairs who retired in 1987.
Because Hensley Park was once part of Cameron Run Park, critics say the city attorney may have jumped the gun in his determination. "Things don't jive," said Dickinson, who is a former chairman of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. "Just going to the property records isn't sufficient. I'd like to see what the grant application said, as approved."
Federal records show that Grant 165XXX allocated $935,000 from the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act to the city of Alexandria for "parks and trails" in 1977. That was the year Alexandria city leaders began a $1.4 million project to develop a 40-acre tract along Cameron Run for 13 different sports, community garden plots and 20 acres of undisturbed woodland. The original version of the park stretched through westerns and southern Alexandria and part of Fairfax County.
"It seems likely that the area where Hensley Park is now located was developed with some of the money that came from that grant in 1977," said Jack Sullivan, who lives in Seminary Hill. "I just don't think we should be bargaining away hard-fought parkland."
LAST MONTH, city officials received an unsolicited proposal from the St. James Group to transform Hensley Park into a sports complex. City Manager Rashad Young is currently reviewing the proposal to determine whether or not the city should consider a 40-year lease of the city-owned property to a private developer. Critics of the proposal say the city should not hand over public land for private gain. Supporters say the sports complex would offer a wide range of options that are currently unavailable in the city.
"I think this could potentially be a fantastic thing for the city," said Mayor Bill Euille during a recent discussion of the issue at City Hall. "I just don't want us to caught being accused that we rushed to judgment."
The unprecedented proposal for the 15-acre site includes aquatics, ice rinks, field house, baseball, basketball, racquet, golf, climbing, gymnastics, track, wellness services, childcare and retail. It would
have the city's first Olympic-sized pool. It would have basketball courts contracted to regulation of the NCAA and ice rinks contracted to regulation of the NHL. It would also take away one of the city's
most popular public recreation sites, which has three baseball fields and one multi-purpose field.
"Right now this is public land for a public park for the public good," said Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg. "It's not like we are growing land like some people grow beef."
FOR NOW, the city attorney has offered his legal opinion to City Council members. But opponents say they are hoping the 1977 application for federal money might shed light on how and where the money was used. If they can prove some of the $935,000 was spent on the part of Cameron Run Park south of Eisenhower Avenue, the proposal from St. James might have a new hurdle.
"The city attorney can't say, I don't think, that even though the land was taken with eminent domain that no development occurred on that property without the use of some of the Land and Water Conservation Fund," said Sullivan. "And that's all it takes — that some of the money was used for that — and then it falls under the strictures of the act."