Loudoun landowner who donated acreage for new state park hopes he started a trend

Robert Leggett paused at the start of a trail on a recent cold afternoon, stooping to pick up a very old green glass jug and a decidedly unhistoric Bud Light bottle and take them out of the woods. Ever since his foundation paid in cash for 894 acres in western Loudoun County more than a decade ago, keeping it from becoming yet another subdivision in one of the fastest-growing counties in the country, he has been helping protect the land.

Now much of it will be given to the commonwealth for a new state park, and Leggett is hoping that the 600-acre gift will snowball: Adjacent landowners in a part of the county known as “Between the Hills” are interested in adding to the park, potentially more than doubling its size if funding can be found.


Planned state park map in Loudoun County
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Planned state park map in Loudoun County

In a county that has changed dramatically in recent years — its population has more than quadrupled since 1990 and grown more than 11 percent just since 2010, according to 2013 estimates by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia — some people are working to keep this still-quiet valley the same.

“Development pressure in Loudoun County is enormous, and real-estate values are snowballing again,” said Joe Bane, one of the landowners. “We would like to see it stay much as it is.”

The donated land is a remarkable property, adjacent to the Appalachian Trail, close to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, and full of woods, meadows, streams, important historical sites, relics of ordinary life from centuries ago and a surprisingly varied abundance of wildlife. So the foundation that Leggett founded with his wife, Dee, bought the property for about $2.2 million to preserve it.

But managing the land and protecting its wildlife turned out to be complicated. When the stock market cratered, the foundation was left with less money to plunge into it. And Leggett, a one-time mathematician-turned-private investor, is 73 and doesn’t have children to take it over. The land is protected from development, but he and his wife wanted to be sure it would be taken care of, too.

Giving a chunk of it to the state is a complex process, with tax credits and conservation easements to work through and several nonprofit groups collaborating. T he Leggett foundation had created a separate nonprofit, the Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship, which leased 900 acres for conservation and recreation activities. The Leggett foundation recently gave about two-thirds of the property to the Old Dominion Land Conservancy with the expectation that the conservancy would work to donate the land to the commonwealth for a state park.

Leggett and others are hoping that the gift agreement, announced this month by then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), will smooth the way, helping make it possible for a great swath of land to be preserved despite the inherent complications of multiple landowners and multiple possible sources of funding.

After a few years of unsuccessful efforts and too many moving parts, Geary Higgins, a member of Loudoun’s Board of Supervisors, is hopeful: “The dam sort of broke when the Leggett foundation donated that 600 acres, which gives us a core to build the rest of it around.”

With tight budgets, it’s far from a sure thing: Many lawmakers would prefer not to make major purchases, keep property off the tax rolls and add costs, especially for benefits as ephemeral as bird song and paw prints in the snow.

The commonwealth already owns several properties slated to become state parks but which haven’t been funded. “We got behind during the tight budget years of the recession” for parks, as in many other parts of government, said state Sen. Frank M. Ruff Jr. (R-Mecklenburg).

Destry Jarvis, a private consultant working with some of the landowners, said he hopes that in the next couple of years they can make the larger park a reality through a combination of private philanthropy and state and federal funds. It would include a Civil War battlefield and Potomac River frontage. It’s also near the Appalachian Trail, Harpers Ferry, and the C&O Canal National Historic Park and the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail.

“It’s rare that a single piece of property can benefit four units of the national park system,” he said.

But some people who use the land regularly are worried that the kinds of visits that happen now — by butterfly observers and horseback riders careful to stay off the trails when things get muddy, to avoid damaging the paths — will change.

“There are all these financial pressures on state agencies,” said Nicole Hamilton, president of the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy. “If they start looking for revenue-generating activities, that could compromise the wildlife. That’s a concern.” It could mean many more people and much more recreational usage, which she knows many would welcome. So although the prospect of a larger protected area is exciting, she said, zip lines, ATVs and mountain biking “are the types of things we’re worried about.”

Leggett said the Blue Ridge center’s remaining 280 or so acres will remain open, and board members at the center are talking with state officials about managing the rest until a state park can open.

In the meantime, the trail rides and campfires and newt-peeping go on.

“It’s gorgeous,” Hamilton said. “There are open fields, meadows, in parts of the property. There are the streams that run through it, the steeper slopes and the forest. It has a lot of diversity, which I think is part of the allure to it.”

There are black bear, coyotes — and unconfirmed but repeated bobcat sightings. There are bullfrogs, green frogs and wood frogs. There are Jefferson salamanders, marbled salamanders, red-spotted newts. And birds: sparrows, warblers, finches, orioles, swans, hawks, ducks, doves, chickadees.

For years, the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy has been leading nature walks there, with regular bird-watching hikes, butterfly-hunting trips and amphibian lessons. Public-school students come on field trips. Boy Scouts and others camp there. Others come to hike.

Leggett has found shards of pottery and china on walks here. Underneath a rock large enough to shelter a person, researchers found a carving of “1868.”

“I can easily go for a walk there that takes me all day,” Hamilton said. “There’s so much to see,” like a copperhead snake she watched — from a safe distance — rippling through tall grass. “The place has so much happening, if you just slow down a minute to listen and see.”

On a winter afternoon, the burble of the fast-moving Piney Run creek, cold water in the midst of slender white birches, was the only sound.

Leggett walked toward the stream, then paused. A long branch had fallen across the path. He stopped and moved it aside, carefully.

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