Park Authority Abandons Potomac Overlook Development Plan

The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (NVRPA) last night (March 19) backed off from its controversial construction plans for Potomac Overlook Regional Park in north Arlington, and agreed to “hit the reset button.”
Following an outpouring of resistance from park users and Arlington residents, who deluged county and regional park officials with emails protesting the plan, NVRPA officials announced Tuesday that they were withdrawing the entire proposal and would ask the full NVRPA board of directors to officially repeal the plan at its quarterly meeting this Thursday (March 21).
The nearly 70-acre Potomac Overlook Park is the largest remaining contiguous woodland in Arlington, which is ranked as one of the most densely populated counties in the nation and is considered “built-out.” The park is a crucial wildlife habitat area with significant environmental and archaeological elements, including the sites of successive Native American encampments.
As unveiled last month, NVRPA planned to build several new recreational projects at Potomac Overlook, including a treetop shelter, a zipline, a new music stage/large-group shelter, an artificial rock climbing wall, a two-acre urban garden plot, a youth group campground, and a new parking lot that would more than double the current parking area. It also proposed taking over control of the adjoining Marcey Road Park, owned and maintained by Arlington County, including its tennis and basketball courts.
Park users and local residents voiced strong support for certain aspects of the plan, such as greater efforts to control invasive species and rebuilding the park’s aging birds-of-prey shelter and deteriorating trails),  but quickly organized to block the development projects. The newly formed Potomac Overlook Preservation Assn. (POPA) established a website and Facebook page and encouraged an email campaign to local officials.
Objections centered on two key points:
  • The land was explicitly set aside by Arlington County nearly 50 years ago as a nature preserve and public park for low-impact recreation—a mission that would be violated by the high-impact recreational facilities sought by NVRPA.
  • Area residents were excluded from the planning process and given no justification for the changes or opportunity for input prior to their release.
NVRPA officials subsequently dropped a couple of elements to their plan, including the zipline and climbing wall, but to no avail. On March 11, the Donaldson Run Civic Association (DRCA), which represents the area closest to Potomac Overlook, sent county and park authorities a letter detailing objections to the plan, and asking NVRPA to repeal a board vote last winter authorizing the project.
At a standing-room-only meeting Tuesday evening in Arlington sponsored by POPA and attended by more than 250 people, park authority Executive Director Paul Gilbert and NVRPA board member Paul Ferguson, accepted both of the civic association’s requests, and pledged to seek a repeal of the original authorizing vote when the NVRPA board meets on March 21.
In announcing its reversal, NVRPA officials acknowledged their public outreach process was flawed, and said the overwhelmingly negative public reaction to their plan convinced them not to proceed. Ferguson said the Park Authority would create a natural resources advisory committee group “open to everyone.” Gilbert indicated it would at least a year before the Park Authority would have time to revisit any new plans for Potomac Overlook.
Users of the park immediately welcomed the park authority’s reversal, praised their quick response to the growing community pressure, and pledged to work cooperatively with the authority in future planning efforts.
Ann Wilson, head of the civic association and primary author of the DRCA March 11 letter opposing the development plan, also praised the park authority’s new direction and thanked them for accepting the civic association’s requests. Steve Blakely, coordinator of POPA, said “the NVRPA did the right thing by listening to the community. They deserve full credit for that, and doing it quickly.”

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