Friday, April 20, 2007

Land Conservation

Bluebells sprout at Merrimac Farm as future of land is discussed
It's beautiful.

No one in the Saturday afternoon tour group walking along the sometimes muddy, sometimes grassy paths at Merrimac Farm disputed that claim as they trudged through the landscape in search of the season's blossoming bluebell flowers.

Any given bluebell stem had up to two dozen pink buds. As they grow and sprout, they turn from violet sprouts into blue bulbs.

"The thinking is that bluebells want to make sure the flowers are out when the pollinators come by," Prince William Conservation Alliance president Charlie Grymes said.

About half a mile into the 300-acre nature preserve, right along the banks of Cedar Run creek, the bulbs shine bright.

On Saturday, they dressed the rain-soaked ground in shades of lavender-blue and forest-green, as there are leaves protruding from the stems that shade the ground below the bulbs.

Tourists walked through brown puddles, broken branches and over coyote droppings to take photographs and absorb an ever-enchanting view.

Click Here!
The tour guides had something else on their agendas, though.

Grymes told the group of about 25 people that if the land were to be turned into 30 10-acre housing lots, the area's ecosystem could suffer a dramatic setback.

"It's in my self-interest to have good, clean drinking water," he said.

Grymes noted the creek - which resembles a river more than a little water path - eventually connects to larger bodies of water where drinking water is pumped for Prince William County citizens.

The president of the Prince William Conservation Alliance brought this up because several years back, developers had tried to acquire the land.

When Merrimac Farm owner Marine Col. Dean McDowell died in February 2001, the property was left to members of his family, including his children.

The 2004 death of Ralph McDowell, the last remaining family member to live at the farm, triggered the land sale by the four surviving family members who own the property, including Gail McDowell, who was at the farm on April 14.

McDowell said her father had always intended for the land to be saved for preservation purposes as he had always been an avid hunter and conservationist.

Though the family and the Conservation Alliance have been managing the land, the fact that no one resides there full-time is a problem.

"There needs to be a guardian," McDowell said of the property, which has been valued at more than $3 million.

Quantico is just across Cedar Run, land owned by the federal government and used as a Marine Corps base.

According to Grymes, the Marines have an interest in the land not being taken over by developers because a land conservation farm would provide a buffer between their base, where training exercises occur, and civilian homes.

John Rohm, Steve Living and John Odenkirk from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries also served as tour guides last weekend.

If the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation approves a bond on June 13 for the state to purchase the land, then the DGIF moves one step closer to becoming the new owner.

The foundation's governing board rejected a proposal from the Conservation Alliance in 2005 that would have given the group a $2 million grant for purchasing purposes because the land was being taken out of an agricultural-zoning district and put into a development district.

Grymes explained that this time around, the Conservation Alliance is acting as a catalyst of sorts. The nonprofit, nonpartisan group is doing what it can to get the title to go from the McDowells to escrow, where it will then be purchased by the state government.

The Conservation Alliance will not pay anything or have any ownership rights to Merrimac Farm; it will be completely run by the state.

The federal government would pitch in with possible land management as well. Quantico would then own development rights of the property, thus securing it away from developers. The state would manage the 300-acre plot through the DGFI, creating a federal and state alliance.

According to Grymes and McDowell, this creates a win-win-win-win situation.

The property owners will be compensated for the land, which is home to a cemetery, wetlands and countless plant and wildlife species.

Locally, the county will have 300 acres of protected land that it doesn't have to pay for and doesn't have to manage because the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries will be handling it.

For the state, the 300 acres would add additional hunting and fishing property to a Northern Virginia county experiencing rapid growth and development.

Currently, hunters need to obtain permission from the Merrimac Farm owners to use the land.

At the federal level, the Quantico Marine Corps Base would have its requested buffer from civilians.

While the county will have no say in the transaction, Supervisor Mike May (R-Occoquan) is in favor of the deal and believes the other members of the Board of County Supervisors are too. He is also a member of the Prince William Conservation Alliance.

He said he thinks of the farm situation as an opportunity for the state and federal government to work together to secure open land.

"I think any time we have the opportunity to preserve property in such pristine condition and really just get a glimpse into what Virginia looked like...we ought to take a serious look into it."

May appeared briefly at the start of the afternoon tour Saturday but did not walk the paths, though he did earlier this year.

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I think anyone who goes out there would be delighted with what they see," May said.

©Times Community Newspapers 2007

No comments: