On a wooded embankment north of Leesburg on the Potomac River lies the smallest national cemetery in the nation.
This quiet patch of Loudoun County was the site of an important Civil War battle where, according to the staff at the Loudoun Museum, almost half of the 1,763 Union soldiers who scaled the bluff were killed, wounded, captured or drowned in the river as they retreated.
Bodies washed ashore downriver in Washington, D.C., days later, and the magnitude of the loss triggered the establishment of a congressional committee to investigate the matter, a committee that was kept alive throughout the war investigating other battles mishandled by Union Army generals.
Today, another committee has been assembled in the name of Balls Bluff, this time made up of local historians, environmentalists, park planners and developers. It is working on a way to set aside land around the cemetery for a 70-acre Balls Bluff park.
"We are hoping that we can make everybody happy with this," said Loudoun County Supervisor Frank Raflo (D-Leesburg). "If it works out, the county would have a new tourist attraction, the historical groups would have a place of important national heritage preserved, another part of the Potomac shoreline would be preserved--an objective for both the Regional Park Authority as well as environmentalists--and the developer could possibly get benefits he wouldn't otherwise be able to have."
A Swiss firm, Beus N.V., owns a 200-acre tract of land north of the battlefield, and the company's representative on the committee, Leesburg attorney Thomas Nalls, said the company is working on a plan that would include donation, or sale at a low price, of the land where the battle occurred.
In exchange for such a gift, the developers are considering asking that development rights for the preserved land be transferred to the adjacent property. Such an option, called a density transfer, was written into the county master plan when the Leesburg Area Plan was adopted two years ago. The Beus land and the Balls Bluff battlefield site lie within the Leesburg Area Plan.
"It's still just an embryo of an idea, but the people with Beus do want to try and do something to help out," Nalls said. "They want to look at what makes sense for the property, taking a creative approach. Of course, they would expect something in return if they decide to donate the land and that's why they are considering density transfer."
Should land be made available for a park, the problem still remains of finding an agency willing to take on the responsibility of a park.
The Regional Park Authority, made up of appointees from Loudoun, Fairfax and Arlington counties and the cities of Alexandria, Falls Church and Fairfax, has sent its executive director, Darrell Winslow, to the committee meetings, but that is no guarantee the group will accept responsibility for a Balls Bluff park.
"If the land was donated, I think the answer would be yes," Winslow said. "But if it was offered for sale, even at a low price, that would be a harder decision to make. It's not in our five-year capital improvement plan." Winslow said the governing board of the authority would have to vote to accept ownership of any land that is offered before it could become part of the park system.
The Regional Park Authority owns Algonkian Regional Park in eastern Loudoun and Red Rock Wildlife Refuge north of Leesburg. Both parks are on the southern bank of the Potomac, and environmentalists say they are key to keeping a variety of native flora and fauna in the eastern half of the county.
But Stanwyn Shetler, chairman of the board-appointed Loudoun County Open Space Committee, said Balls Bluff shelters a valuable collection of plants that he has not seen elsewhere, and protection of such a spot would be an important addition to the county's preserved natural areas.