The Board of Supervisors yesterday tapped the brakes on the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority's plans for a passive recreation and natural park near the intersection of Rt. 50 and Rt. 15, instead voting to send it to committee for further review and discussion.
The board ratified the commission permit needed for the 5.82-acre Mount Zion Historic Park on Rt. 50. The permit was approved by the Planning Commission. In 2010, NVRPA acquired the property from the county, which had operated the historic site since 2003.
But the park directly across Rt. 50 from Mt. Zion, known as Gilbert's Corner Regional Park, spurred questions from supervisors. It is located on approximately 157 acres on the north side of Rt. 50 on the west side of Watson Road. NVRPA acquired the eastern portion of the property from the Mount Zion Church Preservation Association in 2009, and leases the western portion from the Piedmont Environmental Council.
Requesting separate votes on the park applications, Vice Chairman Janet Clarke (R-Blue Ridge) said she wanted to examine whether the Gilbert's Corner park could be used for active recreation, including sports fields.
"There is a tremendous deficit in this county," she said about ballfields. "I think a park is a wonderful thing...but I am concerned by the fact that there is not even a provision for a soccer field."
Other supervisors expressed similar concerns, including Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn), who said he met with Loudoun Soccer Tuesday and learned the organization has 8,000 children signed up.
"And there are 6,000 in Ashburn youth football," he said. "We are in desperate, desperate need for fields. We have a lot of hiking trails. We have more hiking trails than we know what to do with."
Another concern for supervisors was whether having a park there would create problems if the county ever needed to expand Rt. 50 or Rt. 15.
Project manager Judi Birkitt and Planning Director Julie Pastor told the board the commission permit only addressed whether a park in that location met the requirements of the county's Comprehensive Plan and that any decision to move forward with ballfields would require a special exception application, along with another commission permit.
"They just wanted to be able as a first step to have commission permit for passive recreation because it was by right," Birkitt said. "In the event they want to come back for a special exception use, at that time, it could open up to a study of transportation and all other mitigating factors."
Todd Hafner, director of planning and development for NVRPA, also told the board there were limitations on the property.
"About half the property is wetlands, and there is a wetlands conservation easement," he said. "The other half has a conservation easement that we would not put fields on it. That would be prohibited on this property."
Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large) at first attempted to explain to the other board members that overturning the planning commission's approval of the permit would leave the property as is.
"It is what it is. I appreciate the concern about active recreation uses, but if we deny the commission permit it is not going to help that issue," he said. "We are not going to negotiate that issue at this time. That needs to come forward in another application. The property in itself, between wetlands and easements, there is not too much available for active rec."
But other supervisors noted this was the first time they had ever dealt with a commission permit, and said they would like to have the time to review the application in committee before making a final decision.
"Hopefully in a year or two we will much more seasoned up here. But think it is good to err on the side of caution," Supervisor Suzanne Volpe (R-Algonkian), who chairs the Transportation/Land Use Committee, said.
Currently, the Gilbert's Corner Park has only three barns and a storage building on the property, and most is considered environmentally sensitive with forested areas, steep slopes, and wetlands associated with Howsers Branch, a stream that runs through the center of the proposed park.
The Mt. Zion park includes the church, which was built in 1851 and is listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places, a cemetery and a gravel parking area. Minimal improvements will be made, including installing interpretive signs and a short trail to the old Carolina Road bed on the west side of the property.