Chalk it up as a victory for the Fairfax County Park Authority. After a long struggle, the authority recently added more than 1,200 acres to its park holdings--land that will enlarge several existing facilities and add 10 parks to its system.
The new tracts are primarily undeveloped and include environmentally sensitive spaces with streams and forested areas. One has a small lake, while another encompasses a premier Civil War battle site. The tracts are in every magisterial district in the county--from a 260-acre new park in Springfield to an eight-acre parcel in the Mason District.
"This is something that has been talked about for years," said Park Authority spokesman Merni Fitzgerald. "Everyone here is very pleased about this" because the land is now certain to remain in its natural state.
The parcels--1,226 acres in all--were donated to the county over the years by developers, with the intention that they become parkland. But not until May did the Board of Supervisors vote to turn over the land to the Park Authority.
Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully), who pushed for the transfer, said he never thought the tracts would be developed, even while under the authority of the supervisors. But Frey said that officially moving the land to the Park Authority's jurisdiction guarantees that the property will be maintained properly.
"There's clearly the perception among people that it's safer when the Park Authority owns it rather than the county [supervisors]," said Frey, referring to those who wished to keep the land in its natural state. "It makes people feel secure. That's why we did it."
Among the transferred properties is the Union Mill area near the Balmoral development west of Clifton. Considered by the Park Authority to be one of the county's top Civil War sites, the property includes two fortifications that are significant above-ground archaeological sites. The Confederates constructed the areas to help defend the railway junction at Manassas. But unlike fortifications in areas such as Centreville, which were dismantled after the war, Union Mill remained largely intact.
Now that the land is under Park Authority jurisdiction, Fitzgerald said, officials may put up more interpretive signs to help visitors better understand what they're seeing. Fitzgerald said fencing would be considered for more sensitive areas if necessary.
Some of the 1,200 acres is already known as prime hiking and walking terrain. Others parts, Fitzgerald said, may be largely unknown even to those living nearby. That may be the case with a new park in the Braddock District near Bonnie Brae Elementary School, which includes a small lake where drainage storm-water collects.
"This land is beautiful," Fitzgerald recalls saying when she first viewed that particular parcel. "When I saw the lake, I couldn't believe it was hidden back there."
While the vast majority of the 1,200 acres are not usable for play and picnic areas, one 18-acre tract just east of Stringfellow Road in the Sully District likely will be turned into ballfields, Frey said.
The really good news for Fairfax residents is that this land transfer may be just the first. The Board of Supervisors controls still more land, and staff members are reviewing which parcels might be turned over to the Park Authority next.
The parkland addition comes at a time when the county's 17,000-acre park system is experiencing rapid growth. With the approval of an $87 million park bond last November, the authority got $20 million to acquire and preserve open space. The county agreed to spend $1.7 million of that pot to buy 18 acres of the 22-acre Turner Farm in Great Falls. The property, a working dairy farm into the early 1970s, is part of a new 53-acre park for the area.
"People move to Fairfax County for a number of reasons; one reason is they like to be able to walk down the street and into the woods," Fitzgerald said. "And they want to know that this land will be there for their children and their children's children. To now have this 1,200 acres and 10 news parks, it's just wonderful."