Letter to the Editor: Open Space Vigilance

Letter to the Editor: Open Space Vigilance

— Normally, ribbon-cutting ceremonies are very mundane events to draw attention to a new supermarket or the naming or re-naming of a street.

But sometimes they can be a red-letter day, worthy of acclaim and attention for the efforts the event is trying to celebrate.

Such was the case on a sunny June 15, when the mayor and five of the council members snipped a yellow ribbon at 5325 Polk to commemorate a winning battle that citizens waged for over 13 years. Thanks to wide-spread civic involvement, this 2.3 acre site — the last heavily forested parcel in all of Alexandria — will now permanently be an Open Space Preserve. Gone are the threats of massive development that envisioned this space as a new home for 17 townhouses or 11 condominiums or 42 apartment units that would have risen 68 feet above the sidewalk. In the process, more than 162 mature trees that anchor the marine clay soil would have been cut down, with erosion and neighborhood flooding a likely result.

Instead, we saw an all-too-rare example of massive community engagement where residents pointed to this unique ecological environment and the need to save these pristine woods which is a place for a quiet visit amidst urban chaos. And politicians, appointed officials and city staffers listened to hours of testimony pleading for recognition, and, in a bold move, voted to Save This Space.

Ironically, it was an initially negative move that led to this positive outcome. The city has lost six acres of Open Space at the Winkler Preserve in the West End in order to construct the BRAC military facility. And, although that land was independently assessed for $14 million to $16 million, the Army provided only $1.5 million to mitigate that major loss and they stipulated only two conditions: 1) the land had to be in the West End, and 2) the parcel had to be used for Open Space. The Beauregard Rezoning Advisory Group (BRAG) set up a competitive process for candidates for those funds, and the 5325 Polk site won unanimous approval from first BRAG, then the Planning Commission and finally the City Council. We applaud the council members — past and present — who listened to the residents and voted to preserve this land, adding $400,000 from the city’s Open Space Fund to the Army’s $1.5 million for the purchase.

City Naturalist Rod Simmons noted at the dedication that some of the stately oaks in the preserve were there before the Civil War. The new preserve “is an important step in preserving the native forest canopy in the city, as well as protecting native plant diversity, essential wildlife habitat, and water resources,” Simmons said.

Thus, we’d ask those same politicians who just snapped the ribbon at 5325 Polk, affirming their support for Open Space, to seriously re-think their earlier decision to eliminate a dedicated 1 cent set aside for the Open Space Fund in future budgets. How is it that we no longer have any money for something as integral to our community as Open Space — at the same time they are voting for massive increases in height, density and thousands of new residents throughout the city, especially in the West End?

We also ask them to take another look at the 2009 Council decision that significantly reduced the Open Space Fund contribution from 1 percent of the Real Estate Tax, to 1/3 percent. As a result, the reduced amount since then has been used just to cover debt service, but not to build up the Open Space Fund.

While there is still a line item for Open Space in the upcoming budget, it will be meaningless if there is not a constant stream of funding, given how expensive one acre of land is in Alexandria. Let our politicians look at our priorities: how is it possible to have significant funding for a private firm like Bike Share, but no dedicated revenue for Open Space? Over the summer, we welcome all Alexandria residents to walk to the top of the 5325 Polk oasis, and savor that Open Space. And then tell the politicians what your priorities, as a voter, are for the future of Alexandria.

Kathleen M. Burns