The town of Washington heard late last week that its attempt to win a $400,000 U.S. Forest Service (USFS) “Community Forest” grant was unsuccessful.
The funds would have been used, along with matching funds offered by the Krebser Fund and to be raised from other local organizations and individuals, to purchase a 9.1-acre tract at the Warren Avenue entrance to town that would become part of a 22-acre, village-based natural forest and wetland area, as envisioned by the town council and Mayor John Sullivan, who announced the plan in May.
“We knew this might be the case,” Sullivan said by phone Tuesday, “although we certainly were hopeful. We believe there are alternative sources of funding . . . My attitude is, this is such a good idea for the town and the county, and there’s so much support for it in so many places, that we’re just going to find a way to make it work.”
An email from USFS officials to the town noted that the agency received 49 applications for its new Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program requesting $14.5 million in funding. “We had much less than that to award in grants,” said the USFS, which awarded 10 grants totaling $3.5 million. None were in Virginia, and most were characterized by significantly larger land acquisition projects.
The parcel the town wants to purchase is owned in partnership by local resident James “Jimmy” DeBergh and former Sunnyside entrepreneur David Cole.
“We talked to Jimmy,” Sullivan said, “and he’s still interested in continuing with our concept. They’re not walking away from the deal.” Sullivan said the Krebser Foundation, which in addition to committing to a $100,000 grant agreed to help raise the rest of the matching funds, is also “still very committed” to the project.
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 in-town natural area. Its trails would be hiked by visitors and its native plants, restored watershed and upland forest would serve as open-air classrooms maintained by volunteer naturalists and ecology-minded organizations.
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. The property has been described as one of the most prime pieces of commercial real estate in the county, appraised in April at $829,000. The owners agreed to sell it to the town for $675,000, contingent on the funding.