Diane M. Ross
With an estimated population growth of 9,600 people each year, by 2040, Fairfax County could be home to more than 1.3 million people.
This growth will have significant impact on the environment and fuel debates on land use in the Mason Neck Peninsula area, which is already feeling the pressure of urban sprawl.
“Like the population of Fairfax County, the demand for park and recreation options to serve county residents continues to grow,” said Gayle Hooper, a landscape architect with Fairfax County Park Authority and project manager on the Mason Neck Park West Master Revision Plan.
The County recently published their plan of developing portions of the Mason Neck West Park area.
But local residents are working hard to protect their quiet neighborhoods, while searching for a platform to voice their concerns.
“About a year ago, the parks asked us if we would be willing to allow an access way to the parkland from within the neighborhood and we said no,” said Ami Durand, a resident of nearby Harbor View.
Population growth and environmental concerns are not new to this area, and their evolution shapes today’s debate in Mason Neck.
Fairfax County’s explosive population growth projections can be dated back to the 1950’s, when the Fairfax Board of Supervisors charged the National Recreation Association to study the population trends and begin developing a process to designate land use for parks.
Elizabeth van Laer Speer Hartwell, a local resident at the time, helped to preserve the land. In 1966, she organized an effort to stop developers from building a planned community and airport on Mason Neck.
Almost 70 years later, the urban elements are slowly creeping into the area, making it more difficult to escape the effects of a soaring population boom.
The Mason Neck Peninsula is in Lorton, Virginia, just south of Washington, D.C. It spans 6,000 acres and holds in preservation riverfront coastline, wetlands, and rare plant communities. This landscape also fosters a rich habitat for a broad range of birds, including the Bald Eagle.
The peninsula, which jets out into the Potomac River, lies in the middle of an otherwise chaotic urban area. Potomac Mills, Virginia’s largest outlet mall, is about 6.5 miles away and attracts guests from all over the world. The Route 1 corridor, which is heavily trafficked and dotted with strip malls, runs adjacent to potions of the peninsula. Despite these problems along the corridor, the Fairfax County Government believes there are considerable opportunities for improvement, such as a more attractive landscape with modern office buildings and new residential housing.
But these park improvements will likely disrupt the quiet neighborhood communities and cause destruction to natural habitats and precious bird populations.
The Mason Neck Park West area recently acquired a 2.4- acre parcel of land, which has been the subject of debate in nearby communities. Improvements in this area are outlined in a document called the Mason Neck West Park Master Revision Plan.
This Plan establishes a long-range vision of future park uses and site development. Hooper describes plan development as a lengthy process, beginning with assembling a team of experts and community outreach. The process seeks to balance recreation needs, resources and community input with existing site conditions.
“Sometimes land is acquired to achieve specific objectives, such as protection of unique cultural and natural resources or to meet the demand for active recreation in an underserved area,” Hooper said in an e-mail.
But even some people on the planning committee disagree. Hooper cited one example when the archeologists needed to dig up certain pieces of land to test it, yet many of the naturalists on the team opposed the action citing that it would upset the ecosystem.
Currently, the plan envisions low density residential development, expanded parking lots and recreational facilities including a playground, reservable picnic shelters, and trail connections. The plan also calls for lighting the baseball field.
“I am not a fan of lighting the ball park because we’ll see it from our house for certain,” said Durand.
Hooper confirmed the field lighting at Mason Neck Park West had been on the Master Plan since 1984 and the latest revision in 2015 carried forward that recommendation.
“As I reviewed the comments received during the process, there was no statement shared with the Park Authority noting concern about possible field lighting. If we don’t hear it, we can’t address it,” Hooper said.
Durand, a long-time Fairfax County resident, explains how many of the residents neighboring the parkland are third and sometimes fourth generation residents of Harbor View.
“We are a tight- knit group of people working hard to preserve the quietness of our neighborhood,” Durand said.
But it’s not just land use that concerns Durand and her neighbors.
A portion of the Giles Run River appears to be getting polluted by the nearby Lorton Dump.
“There is nasty run-off polluting our marina’s basin and flowing out into the Potomac,” Durand said.
Hooper doesn’t have any specific information on the disposition of the Lorton Landfill.
“I do know the county continues to expand on ways to address the detritus of a county of more than one million residents and over two hundred million square feet of commercial, industrial and office space,” she said.
The Master Plan process does include extensive community outreach.
“Typically there is a project website, signs are posted, and a postcard goes out to nearby residents,” Hooper said. We also host a public meeting to hear the community’s vision for the future of the park.
But it appears not everyone is informed on the plan development.
“I don’t think anyone has a clue as to what the plans are,” said Durand. “I’d just like to know what the plan is, how residents get information about it, and if anyone out here is being given the chance to voice our opinions,” she said.
Hartwell’s early efforts were rewarded as the area became the National Wildlife Refuge, which has since been renamed the Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge in her honor. This wildlife refuge is home to dozens of bald eagles and maintains its efforts to protect Mason Neck’s valuable resources.