A concern that has been making headlines in eastern Loudoun is now simmering in Purcellville, as outdoor enthusiasts press for public access to the town’s reservoir property.
After Loudoun Water acquired the Goose Creek and Beaverdam reservoirs from the City of Fairfax earlier this year, one of its first public actions was to adopt new policies restricting public access to the property that had been used by fisherman, hikers and others for decades. Now the authority is planning a new round of outreach to determine if it can balance concerns about liability and public safety with the desire for residents to enjoy park-like activities.
Security is being cited as the largest concern with a new push for public access to Purcellville’s 1,272-acre J.T. Hirst Reservoir property on Short Hill Mountain northwest of town.
MTB LoCo last year received approval from the Board of Supervisors to allow mountain biking on county park property and worked with the Loudoun County Parks, Recreation and Community Services and equestrian and other groups to open a multiuse trail near the county landfill in May.
Now the group has its sights set on Purcellville’s reservoir property. Rob Harrington, At-large MTB LoCo board member, said the land is perfectly suited for outdoor multiuse trail recreation and could serve as a revenue source for the town while providing area residents more green space for outdoor activities. Additionally, the watershed could be used by area schools for educational purposes, he said.
The town has placed the property under easement with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation to permanently protect the reservoir from encroaching development, but that easement doesn’t prohibit recreational uses such as trails. But the easement is not as much of a concern to Town Manager Robert W. Lohr Jr.; security is, because it is the town’s drinking water source. Just one accident—say diesel fuel accidentally spilled into the watershed—could have a severe effect on the town’s water supply, Lohr said.
Allowing recreational use on reservoirs was once a common practice throughout the country, Purcellville Director of Public Works Alex Vanegas said, but that changed following 9/11 when the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 recommended that water supplies be closed to the public.
While the watershed and reservoir comprise 1,272 acres, Lohr said the reservoir itself is only a small piece, “like a finger, of between five and eight acres in a land mass that includes springs and three impoundments.” The town property is surrounded by private property including farms and a vineyard. The town has access to the reservoir watershed through easements granted by the property owners: there is no public road access. There are two entrance points where the gates are locked. The property’s boundary is posted with “no trespassing” signs.
But Harrington said large water systems across the county use trail users as security agents. “The federal government has endorsed allowing recreational use of these type of activities,” he said. “We act as security, we are a part of the security endorsement,” he said. “We’re all working together to allow recreational facilities.”
The town takes a different view. During its June 10 meeting, the council unanimously adopted a resolution stating there would be no trails established—either for horses, cyclists or walkers—on the property and no public access granted.
But the matter is unlikely to rest there, as Harrington made it plain his group plans to present a new proposal from a number of associated organizations, including the equestrian U.S. Trail Ride, trail runners and hikers, and the Potomac Heritage Trail Association, of which he is a board member, to the incoming council, which will hold its first meeting July 22 with a new mayor and three new members.
“This is much larger than MTB LoCo,” which he founded five years ago, Harrington said, noting a larger group, Loudoun County Trails Alliance, stemmed from a business plan developed by the Rural Economic Development Council and approved by the Board of Supervisors. “This has a lot more support than a couple of mountain bikers looking for trails. I want these opportunities for my kids and for all county children,” Harrington said.
And from the town’s point of view, Lohr said, it’s not that the town wouldn’t consider some kind of restricted public access in the future, but he is concerned that even opening the land to the most well-intentioned organizations could have significant unintended consequences.
Public use of Beaverdam Reservoir in Ashburn was unregulated under years of City of Fairfax ownership, Lohr noted, citing various accidents, including drownings, that occurred on the property. Loudoun Water shouldn’t be viewed as the “bad guy” for wanting to close access for a period of time and develop a new plan to upgrade the reservoir and keep it a safe and secure source of drinking water, Lohr said. He also said it is not the responsibility of the town’s water system customers to provide recreational opportunities for others.
“What do you do when something happens,” he asked. “You’d have damage to our water system, contamination, and we’d have to buy water from others until the situation could be righted. You want me to have to tell people their water rates are going to go up, meantime?”
Lohr said he had also suggested the group consider other town properties, including the Aberdeen property near the town’s water treatment plan, which is more than 200 acres. But Harrington said, although a nice property, “90 percent of it is pure field, with no tree lines, and offers little in terms of recreational value.”
Whether the town would allow public access to the land was raised as an issue during the campaigns leading up to the May election, which saw Vice Mayor Keith Melton handily defeated by political newcomer Kwasi Fraser in the mayoral race. “Our impression was Mr. Fraser may be more open [to public access on the land] than Mr. Melton,” Harrison said this week.
Lohr said he had talked with Harrington, who “made it clear the group fully understands my position and that of the [current] council, and they would abide by it.”
While that may be the case, Harrington and his group still hope to find a different position once the new council settles in.
Reservoir Policy Permits Hunting, Fishing By Staff
While the general public is prohibited from using the Hirst Reservoir property for recreational use, Town of Purcellville staff members and town volunteers are allowed to hunt and fish on the property.
Under the town’s wildlife resource and property management plan—which has been in place since the 1930s—a small number of town employees and town volunteers on boards, council and commissions have been granted permission to hunt and to fish on the watershed property to control the deer population and curb damage to neighboring crops, according to Town Manager Robert W. Lohr Jr.
Deer control is a high priority, particularly with the high incidence of Lyme disease, and neighboring farmers who have crops, including hay, soybeans and corn to protect, Lohr said.
“We can’t allow 1,262 acres of deer populating.”
The town’s management plan also includes timbering in select areas and dealing with gypsy moth and other infestations.
Access to the property is granted by the town manager. A self-confessed “avid” hunter, Lohr said he had not shot deer on the watershed property since 2006, although he occasionally fishes there. To gain access, employees and volunteers are required to go through a wildlife management training program, including hunter safety, and acknowledge with a signature they have read and agree to abide by the regulations. The employee also has to provide a hunting license.
Currently there are 23 hunting permit holders, including town staff, six town volunteers and six Purcellville Police Department officers, and 13 fishing permit holders, including Lohr. The permits are issued each year, and holders must show their hunting license and re-sign the regulations.
“Only people that work for or serve the town” are allowed on the property, Lohr said, noting the land is not open to State Police or the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office.
“They do a good job managing the wildlife,” Lohr said, noting hunting is permitted from September through late March.