Brief History




1958 (July 19). Arlington County is the first jurisdiction to endorse the articles of incorporation of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (1 January 1958). Two or more counties were sought at that time for adoption of the articles in order to be eligible to apply for federal funds (Capper-Cramton Act, which would provide for 1/3 of the cost of land acquisition for parks). Entered into the Arlington County Board Minutes at that time:

 “No other or further project shall be undertaken by the Authority so created unless and until the governing bodies of the political subdivisions composing the Authority shall, by subsequent concurrent resolution, after public hearing or hearings, and with or without referendum, specify the further project or projects to be undertaken by such Authority.”

 1966 (June 16) NVRPA begins to acquire land for “This rare enclave within Arlington … to preserve more land as open space in its natural state.”

 1967 The Washington Post reports on the “Amateurs Dig at Indian Site” (July 20). Discoveries include artifacts believed to be of the Woodland Indians, dated around 2500 B.C. to 1670 A.D. The dig was sponsored by the Arlington Cultural Heritage Commission. December 14th the Post reports further on the finds, noting “The Society [Archeological Society of Virginia, an amateur group] has begun more meticulous examination of the farm site, laying off five-foot squares and sifting the soil. Previous finds in the area were artifacts that had been scattered when the site was bulldozed for park land.”

1966 through November 1967. There were various political conflicts between the Arlington County Board and NVRPA. In November 1966, the Authority requested $130,000 in additional funds to purchase 17.6 acres of land for Potomac Overlook; the Executive Director was quoted in the Washington Post as acknowledging that the funds would go into the regional treasury and would not be earmarked specifically for Arlington land. November 1967 the Board voted to leave in open space 8.3 acres wanted by the Authority; NVRPA still with just the core 50 acres.

Bond issue vote November 1969 to provide $2,160,000 over a five-year period to NVRPA.

 June 1971 In the Washington Post: “Noting a scarcity of public land for open space and park use, Arlington’s planning commission voted yesterday to recommend immediate acquisition of 13 tracts totaling more than 100 acres with particular emphasis given to the Potomac Palisades and South Arlington areas.”

By the formal opening of the Park in 1971, NVRP had acquired a total of 67.5 acres. Potomac Overlook Regional Park was designed by a planning team from the National Audubon Society in order to create an urban nature sanctuary within Arlington County.

Within the Park’s boundaries are the sites and some remains of ancient Native American settlements and the Donaldson family farms: foundations of two log barns; at least three Donaldson family homes; a series of Native American villages, spring and burial ground; Donaldson family graveyard.

As the NVRPA worked to acquire land, Eminent Domain was employed to gather together the three largest parcels that make up the Park. The remaining six sections of the total acreage were “gifted” in transfers of $1 to $10 each from individual resident land owners and by two development companies. These donations were made based on the stated intent and commitment to create a wildlife sanctuary and nature preserve.

In order to acquire these parcels, the Park Authority used monies contributed by Arlington County from appropriations and bond issues. It also applied for a HUD grant to fund of “an open space project,” accompanied by covenants that apply to the Park’s use as long as the NVRPA owns the land. This grant and its stated purpose for being are noted in, among other documents, the deed transfer of Edna Horstman of her property to the Park Authority.

In addition to the funds mentioned above, the Authority has been reimbursed by state grants and other federal funds, including the Department of Interior, Land and Water Conservation Fund Act over the years.

1973 County asked the NVRPA to act on a 1930s agreement with the National Capital Park and Planning Commission that allowed Arlington to build a wharf on land near what is now the GW Parkway. County Board was seeking a boathouse for its citizens along the river bank.

1973 (March 27). The last land transfer for creating the Park, now the County’s largest.

1974 Nature Center opens with a variety of displays including live animals and Native American artifacts unearthed at Potomac Overlook Park by members of the Archeological Society of Virginia.

1979 County Board still pressing the NVRPA for a Potomac boathouse. The Authority was in the process of building three such facilities outside Arlington (in 1979, 1984, 1990). A National Park Service report (1989) called for three more boathouses to be built on the Potomac in or near the District.

1991 (January) Arlington County Board accepts a long-range plan for preserving the Potomac Palisades – the bluffs and parklands above the River. Recommended is the establishment of a special planning area that would stretch from Key Bridge north to the Fairfax County line and from the river west to a line approximately bordered by Lee Highway, Spout Run, Lorcom Lane, Nellie Custis Drive, and Military Road. Also urged are the adoption of conservation and pollution control policies to protect streams, trees, wooded areas, and the shape of the land. “The panel recommended that parkland in the area be maintained as natural areas and that a new zoning designation make clear that those lands could not be used for non-park purposes.” (Washington Post 24 January 1991).

1998 (July 22) Arlington Connection: “’Arlington is the 12th most densely populated county in the United States,’” said Stan Ernst, assistant to the county’s director for planning and design. ‘We have six acres of green space per thousand residents as compared with the ideal of 10 acres.’”

1998 (May) “A Field Guide to Potomac Overlook Regional Park”: Potomac Overlook Regional Park was designed to fulfill a threefold mission: (1) preserve the land in its natural state to promote the health of our environment and safeguard the diversity of species; (2) educate the public on natural and cultural history, stressing the interrelatedness of all living organisms with the environment and the need for all humans to be caretakers of the Earth; (3) provide a natural setting for recreation and exercise.

September 2007 In testimony before the District [Washington, D.C.] Historic Preservation Review Board over the development of the Palisades Park, D. Murphy Donovan stated: “An example of what could and should be done lies directly across the river in Arlington. A companion American Indian settlement was also identified by Holmes [William Henry Holmes, important late 19th-century archaeologist, anthropologist, geologist who wrote about the Stone Age in the District area]. Would that the Fenty administration could show a similar sensitivity.” The author was referring to Potomac Overlook Park and its nature center.

 July 2011 An official Arlington County document, Wildlife of Arlington: A Natural Heritage Resource Inventory Technical Report notes that Potomac Overlook Park “Features a number of varying habitats including mature woodlands, maintained grasslands, riparian forest and access to the Potomac River shoreline by hiking trail. By virtue of size and geographic location, this park provides one of the best nesting locations for birds in the County.” It goes on to state that “With an estimated 40% of the County covered in impervious surface, Arlington is considered ‘built out.’”

2012 (September 20) NVRPA issues and formally adopts their Five Year Strategic Plan 2012-2017: “The mission of Potomac Overlook Regional Park is to provide a protected woodland sanctuary, in order to preserve environmental quality and species diversity; to provide environmental and cultural education, stressing the relationship between all living organisms and to provide a natural setting in which to enjoy low impact recreational activities and physical exercise.”

2012 (15 November) Board Meeting of the NVRPA. In the official minutes:

“ADOPTION OF POTOMAC OVERLOOK IMPROVEMENTS. The following major improvement areas were discussed: Park Entrance, Amphitheater/Stage Area, Treetop Shelter, Urban Agriculture, Youth Group Camping Area, Birds of Prey, Marcey Park Addition, Programming and Interpretation.

 “RECOMMENDATION: That the Board approve the Potomac Overlook Regional Park Improvements Plan and staff be authorized to proceed with project planning and implementation. That the Board also approve amending the General Management Plan to reflect activity areas for youth group camping, urban agriculture and additional parking and other features as shown in the improvement plan.

 “Motion by Mr. Nardollili, seconded by Mr. Ferguson, to approve Potomac Overlook Regional Park Improvements Plan. UNANIMOUSLY APPROVED.”

In the following 17 January 2012 Board meeting was official “Approval of Minutes Nov. 15, 2012.”

2013 (25 February) NVRPA makes first public announcement of its plans for Potomac Overlook at an evening meeting held at Taylor Elementary School. Public reaction to the plan was overwhelmingly negative, causing the NVRPA to drop a two parts of plan (the zipline and rock climb) in response.

2013 (19 March) Potomac Overlook Preservation Association holds public meeting on the park plans, held at the Presbyterian Church on Military Rd. and attended by a standing-room-only crowd of more than 250 people. NVRPA officials announced they were accepting the recommendation of the Donaldson Run Civic Association to “hit the reset button,” drop their announced plans for the park, and repeal the authorizing vote of Nov. 15, 2012.

 2013 (21 March) Board Meeting of the NVRPA. The Potomac Overlook vote of Nov. 15, 2012, was repealed. Motion by Mr. Ferguson, seconded by Mr. Nardollili, and passed unanimously:

“I move that we rescind the action taken by the Board on November 15, 2012 related to the Potomac Overlook Park Improvement Plan. The language of this rescinded action being: ‘That the Board approve the Potomac Overlook Regional Park Improvements Plan and staff be authorized to proceed with project planning and implementation. And amend the General Management Plan to reflect activity areas for Youth Group Camping, Urban Agriculture and additional parking and other features as shown in the Improvement Plan.’”


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