Two Hobbies Go Head-to-Head for Precious Open Land

Ken Bassett, left, and Bob Burnett, members of the Northern Virginia Radio Control model airplane club, get a plane ready for yesterday's demonstration.
Ken Bassett, left, and Bob Burnett, members of the Northern Virginia Radio Control model airplane club, get a plane ready for yesterday's demonstration. (Photos By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 30, 2007

It sounded like a weed whacker with wings as it bumped and waddled over the grass, trying to take flight.

But then the model airplane shot skyward into a bunch of daredevil maneuvers, and hearts soared. The hobbyists hoped to use yesterday's high-flying demonstration to persuade Fairfax County park officials to set aside this much-desired piece of land near Manassas National Battlefield Park as a miniature airfield.

As available parkland becomes more scarce in the Washington region's most populous jurisdiction, the Fairfax County Park Authority has been trying to forge compromises among a growing number of competing interests.

Working with the Northern Virginia Radio Control model airplane club for more than a year, park officials have tried to find enough open space for a flight zone after housing developments forced the club to buzz off. But officials are also trying to keep the peace among equestrians who rely on this patch of parkland, known as the Horne property, to get to the extensive trails on the Civil War battlefield. The riders fear the gas-powered model airplanes will spook their mounts.

"We've come pretty well to the point where the footprint of Fairfax County's parks is pretty well established," Harold Strickland, chairman of the Park Authority board, said during the test flight.

All was well yesterday. But then an angry intruder -- one of the horse people, no less -- threatened to hijack the hobbyists' flight plans. Jessica Holcomb, 16, interrupted the demonstration, walking over from her house across Bull Run Post Office Road and complaining that the airplanes had riled up her family's horses.

"The horses are just running around the field acting like they don't know what's going on!" Holcomb shouted. She also accused the pilots of allowing their airplanes to cross the two-lane highway and fly near her house -- although no one at the demonstration who witnessed the flights thought the planes had come anywhere close.

As the planes kept flying and equestrians pored over maps and snapped pictures, Strickland explained that the agency has found itself being called upon to make more and more of these Solomonic calls. His advice to both camps yesterday: Share.

"We have any number of different constituencies, and then folks say, 'Go buy something somewhere else.' Fifteen years ago, that might have been an option."

He said the Park Authority has acquired about 6,000 acres in the past five years -- or almost 35 percent of all its holdings. But it has become difficult to find open parcels of 150 acres or more.

"We want these folks to be happy, and we want those folks to be happy," he said, referring to the equestrians and the airplane club. "It seems to me everyone's going to have to give some."

Yesterday, both camps were polite. But wary. About 20 people, including park staff, equestrians and hobbyists, met at the site to see whether the planes could fly in a box measuring roughly 1,600 by 700 feet without disturbing the neighbors or visitors to the battlefield.

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