The top site for a new Gainesville park is partly owned by one of the largest campaign contributors to Supervisor Edgar S. Wilbourn III, who helped choose a list of six finalists that included the property, according to documents and officials with the Prince William Park Authority.
The 120-acre parcel, north of Sudley Road near Sanders Lane, is half-owned by Bobby J. and Lois E. Surface, who together and through their company, Superior Paving Corp., have given more than $3,000 to Wilbourn (R-Gainesville) since he first sought election in 1995. The Prince William Park Authority has signed a tentative contract to buy the land from the Surfaces and another couple for $670,000.
Wilbourn helped park officials narrow an initial list of 40 properties to six that included the Sudley Road location, but he had no role in choosing the land as the top site, according to Wilbourn and three others involved in the search.
"I had nothing to do with the decision to make that the location," Wilbourn said. "I didn't pay particular attention to who owned any of them. . . . I don't care where it's located. I just want to get it built so that our kids can utilize a park they need."
But Wilbourn's two opponents in the Republican primary June 8 said the site selection raises questions about the Gainesville supervisor's role in the process. One of the candidates, Martha T. Hendley, said Wilbourn should have recused himself from the entire search.
"I think this is just another case where you don't know where the citizens' interest leaves off and where his own interests begin," Hendley said. "From appearances, it looks like there's at least an ethical conflict."
The second GOP challenger, Kevin P. Childers, also criticized Wilbourn for planning to attend an Evergreen Country Club fund-raiser Wednesday that is being sponsored in part by the Surfaces.
"I would not permit any individual who may benefit from the taxpayer's money to host a fund-raiser or gathering for me," Childers said. "A supervisor should never give even the appearance of a possible conflict of interest."
The Board of County Supervisors is scheduled to consider the purchase at its meeting Tuesday, but county staff have recommended a delay because of questions about property easements and other issues unrelated to Wilbourn. The Park Authority has delayed its own final recommendation for the same reasons.
The proposed park was included in a package of bond projects approved by voters last year. The package called for spending as much as $750,000 to acquire land for soccer and baseball fields in Gainesville. The search for a site began this spring with the formation of an ad hoc committee including Wilbourn, two Park Authority administrators and Linda Meyer, Wilbourn's appointee on the park board, officials said.
Wilbourn and the other committee members said they met at the offices of real estate agent Mary Ann Ghadban to review records on about 40 potential park sites, most of which were eliminated because they were too expensive, too small, were not for sale or had other problems.
The group members said the six finalists were selected because they met the panel's basic criteria for price and location. They said the list was then winnowed down by Park Authority officials to the Sudley Road site, which was tentatively approved for purchase by the park board in April.
Meyer and other participants said Wilbourn did not identify any favored properties, nor did he mention his connection to the Surfaces. Park officials declined to identify the other land parcels on the final list because of concerns about confidentiality.
"It was never my sense that he was pushing for any specific property," said Patrick J. Mulhern, the Park Authority's corporate services director who participated in the search. "He was anxious for us to purchase a piece of property so another park could be provided for his constituents, but that's not unusual for a supervisor."
After the site was recommended by Mulhern and other staff members earlier this month, the Park Authority chairman and county attorney signed a sales agreement with the property owners. The supervisors must give final approval to the transaction.
If the sale is approved, the Surfaces and the other owners, Phillip and Johanna Bolling, together will receive $390,000 more than what they paid for the land in 1985, according to property records. In addition, by selling it as parkland to the county, the couples will avoid paying about $50,000 in back taxes, according to John F. Cunningham, Prince William assessments chief.
Mulhern said the $670,000 sale price falls between the county's assessed market value, $750,500, and the value estimated by an independent appraiser, $650,000.
Bobby Surface rejected suggestions that the choice of land was influenced by his political support of Wilbourn. "It has absolutely nothing to do with it," Surface said, declining to comment further.
Wilbourn has trumpeted the proposed new park in his campaign literature and campaign appearances. "I've been able to get more parks for the Gainesville District than the three previous supervisors combined," he said during a candidates debate last week.
He said in an interview later that he has pushed for a speedy purchase of parkland because several engineering and construction companies have promised to donate labor and materials during the current construction season.
Peggy Delinocci, the Park Authority's executive director, said there is no money budgeted over the next five years to develop the land once it's purchased. She said that Wilbourn has mentioned possible donations but that the Park Authority has not received any firm commitments.
After being asked about the site selection process by The Washington Post, Wilbourn sent a letter to Delinocci on Thursday requesting that any decision be delayed until after the GOP primary because "plans for the park have been recently politicized." The next park board meeting is scheduled for June 9, the day after the primary.
Wilbourn said that he actually favored a park location off Sudley Road next to the site of a proposed high school but never shared that opinion with the Park Authority.
"It's obvious that unfortunately the park is becoming a political issue by my opponents," Wilbourn said in an interview. "It's unfortunate the citizens of Gainesville have to suffer for it."
Wilbourn has repeatedly come under fire from opponents for his close ties to development interests, who account for a significant portion of his financial support as a political candidate.
He also attracted widespread criticism in 1997 when he announced plans to build houses and offices in Gainesville while serving as supervisor.
CAPTION: Proposed Park Site(This graphic was not available)