Citing the urgent need for parkland in the western end of the county, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors has overwhelmingly endorsed the purchase of a 101-acre tract in Gainesville that gave rise to allegations of campaign scandal earlier this year.
The unanimous vote Tuesday night gives the Park Authority permission to purchase the site for $627,000, a move that will add an estimated eight to 10 recreation fields. But it also will limit the county's options for the location of the planned Route 234 Bypass, very likely forcing the road east of the park--a fact that angered neighbors.
The county's go-ahead marks the end of an ugly chapter of fears, mud-slinging and intense emotions.
"I'm glad that the board deciphered through all the misinformation," Supervisor Edgar S. Wilbourn III (R-Gainesville) said after the vote, lashing back at critics who assailed his park plan as well as his financial motivations for it in recent months.
Neighbors of the site off Sudley Road have mounted a spirited attack on the planned purchase, raising health concerns over power lines that border the parcel's western end and a septic facility planned for adjoining land to the west.
Buying the park "is not a reasonable, responsible use of our tax money," said Joel Fuerst, a landowner who lives next to the site.
Opponents also worried about the park's effect on the location of the Route 234 Bypass, which has never had a definite geography. The sellers donated almost 20 acres along the tract's eastern boundary for road right of way, reducing the purchase price from $670,000 and making it more likely that the bypass will run on that side of the park.
Despite critics' claim that the new park offers little value for the money, county planners said Tuesday that about 60 percent of the land can go toward fields--versus 50 percent in James S. Long Park off Route 15 north of Haymarket. They added that every concern over the usefulness or safety of the land has been resolved, with the exception of questions over how best to handle septic waste from the park.
But the most volatile issue surrounded Wilbourn's influence in choosing the Gainesville parcel, which is partly owned by a couple who have been substantial contributors to the supervisor's reelection campaign. Those and other issues came to a head in the two weeks before the primary election June 8, prompting the county supervisors to delay their decision.
Wilbourn and park officials have said he had nothing to do with the final selection of the land, although he helped determine the criteria that governed the Park Authority's decision. The authority and the Planning Commission both supported the purchase earlier this month.
On Tuesday night, opponents remained unconvinced by such denials of favoritism. They questioned the county's land studies and calculations, recited a James Madison quote chastising "legislators with interested views" and offered visions of doom about children stricken with leukemia from power lines and poisoned by nitrates from human waste.
Backers of the site, many of them sports enthusiasts eager to increase the number of recreational facilities in the area, said critics' claims are blown out of proportion.
"I won't tell you how much we need fields and sports facilities in the western end of the county," said Don Richardson, vice president of the Virginia Soccer Association. "You could find similar problems in just about every site on that end of the county."
After buying the land, the Park Authority has until Aug. 31 to complete feasibility studies. The authority has said it will pull out of the deal if it detects any insurmountable problems.