The town of Washington plans to purchase what’s been called one of the most prime pieces of commercial real estate in the county – and, if all goes right, to turn it into a showcase of non-commercial development.
A forest, in other words.
Proponents of the plan say that in 10 years, the roughly 22 acres between the county’s Gay Street complex and U.S. 211 (encompassing the town-owned Avon Hall and wastewater treatment plant and the butterfly/nature trail already in development adjacent to both) could be a unique, village-based natural forest and wetland area. Its trails will be hiked by visitors and its native plants, restored watershed and upland forest will serve as open-air classrooms maintained by volunteer naturalists and ecology-minded organizations.
“The more I talked to people about this, the more the idea kept not falling apart,” said Daniel Spethmann, a relative newcomer to the town who serves on its planning commission, and who was credited Monday with conceiving and putting the plan together. “So it became clear that the project had legs, and that we should proceed.”
At Monday’s Town Council meeting (May 14), Mayor John Fox Sullivan could hardly contain his excitement at finally being able to make public, after months of private negotiations and planning, the town’s intention to apply for a $400,000 U.S. Agriculture Department grant – the deadline was Tuesday – to help it purchase a 9.1-acre tract owned in partnership by local resident James “Jimmy” DeBergh and former Sunnyside entrepreneur David Cole.
The properties are at the Warren Avenue/U.S. 211 “gateway” to the town and include what’s generally known as the Black Kettle property (named for the defunct motel now mouldering there), as well as the roughly five-acre tract between the Black Kettle site and the four-lane highway.
If it receives the funding and the sale goes through, Sullivan said, the town would put the 9.1 acres into conservation easement.
Together, according to an assessment made last month, the properties are worth $829,000; the owners have agreed to sell them to the town for $675,000. The sale, Sullivan said, is contingent on the town getting the $400,000 USDA Community Forest Program grant, as well as a $100,000 grant from the Krebser Fund, the local conservation-focused organization – which has also agreed to help the town raise the remaining $175,000.
“We hope to do all of this without spending any of our taxpayers’ money,” Sullivan said. He later noted Spethmann’s estimate that maintaining the property – planting trees, removing invasive species, returning the property’s original flow of water into wetlands – would cost no more than $6,000 a year. And that, in addition to state and other funding available for such pursuits, responsibility for much of the work had already been promised by like-minded local organizations.
The council voted unanimously Monday night to make the application – a process that could take months, but which Sullivan said the town is hopeful will be successful. It will be presented to the USDA authorities by Carl Garrison III, the Charlottesville-based state forester with Virginia’s Department of Forestry.
The application contains an impressive docket of recommendation letters: from Sullivan; County Administrator John W. McCarthy; Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District manager Greg Wichelns; Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP) president Rick Kohler; School Board chair John Lesinski and superintendent Aldridge Boone, who would incorporate the nature area’s ecology, hydrology, forest restoration and conservation opportunities into the school division’s science curriculum; and from Patrick O’Connell, a town council member but also proprietor and founder of the Inn at Little Washington, the town’s largest employer and its greatest source of meals-and-lodging tax revenue.
“We see firsthand every day the reaction of our guests to this peaceful, unspoiled little hamlet, and appreciate how rare it is,” O’Connell writes. “Of grave concern to all who live here is the uncertain fate of the gateway to our historic community,” he adds, referring to McCarthy’s, Sullivan’s and others’ long-standing worry that the commercially zoned tract at that corner would eventually attract a service station or fast-food franchise.
“A wonderful solution to this area has been proposed,” O’Connell writes.
Sullivan said that many groups and individuals had been involved “in parts of” the project, but that only a few knew the scope of the project.
“This all started with the butterfly trail,” Sullivan said, referring to the trail now underway from Warren Avenue into the Avon Hall property, a joint project involving the local Virginia Master Naturalists, the Rappahannock Friends and Lovers of Our Watershed (RappFLOW) and others. He said these same groups have discussed helping restore the surrounding tracts, if the plan goes through, and he views the entire 20-plus-acre area as a “commons” – and “a model for other towns throughout the state as well as the nation at large.”
Spethmann, who works in the land-conservation field, spoke briefly at the council meeting and mentioned that the more he talked about such a project, the more interested state and federal agencies seemed to be – in having a “demonstration model for green infrastructure, which is a huge thing in Washington and Richmond right now, that is located not far from either capital.”
As CSWCD manager Wichelns wrote in his recommendation: “The town receives many visitors on an annual basis and since management issues with this small watershed can be viewed as a microcosm of Chesapeake Bay management issues, it represents an excellent opportunity for public engagement. The impact of such programs could likely have a wider impact.”
Several town residents spoke after Sullivan’s and Spethmann’s presentation Monday; most were supportive – after confirming, with a few questions, that maintenance of a natural area would not be an overwhelming or escalating burden to the town, and that the sale of the property was contingent on the Community Forest grant, the Krebser Fund grant and raising the remainder from private donors or like-minded organizations. (As council member Alice Butler put it: “So, if we do this, this land becomes our responsibility – forever.”)
“It seems to be a no-brainer,” said Gay Street Inn co-owner Jay Brown.