Huntington Park was developed in 1974 as four acres with a softball diamond, basketball court and a playground. In the intervening 32 years, the park has quadrupled to 16 acres and will grow by six more in the future.
Despite this growth, the park’s master plan remains unchanged. Faced with the opportunity, and necessity, of transforming the park to take advantage of its new borders, the Fairfax County Park Authority has begun a process of starting afresh. The first step was to hold a public information meeting, which took place at Mount Eagle Elementary School on June 8.
Huntington Park is north of Huntington Boulevard and South of Cameron Run, equidistant between Telegraph Road and Route 1. The park is classified as a “local park,” which means it is meant to serve the residents in a two-mile radius.
About 35 people from the neighborhood around the park attended the meeting. Park Authority senior planner Irish Grandfield began with some background.
The park consists of the original four-acre site in the west, a wooded area to the east and an open space uniting them formerly owned by the Fairfax Water Authority. Before giving the land to the Park Authority, the Water Authority tore down the buildings that had been on the site but left it heavily graveled.
Granville said the principal natural resource of the park was the mixed forest in the east, although it is “fairly low quality because of its invasive plants.” Because the park is located in the Chesapeake Bay Resource Protection Area, there are heavy restrictions on how it can be developed. No additional impermeable surface cover, such as asphalt for a basketball court or parking lot, can be added to the park. To add any such surfaces, a corresponding area must be subtracted from what already exists. Picnic tables and trails of any type are not included in these restrictions.
Granville called on those at the meeting to help draft a new master plan for Huntington. He described it as “a long-range, generalized land-use plan … a guidance document that may be available 20, 30, even 32 years into the future.”
The creation of such a far-reaching document is not a hurried process. The Park Authority will use suggestions from the June 8 meeting, as well as demographic studies and consultations with other stakeholders, to create a list of options for the park. This list will be brought to the public in a workshop in October. A draft master plan will be created after this workshop, brought back to the public, refined and will probably be finalized and released in the summer of 2007.
AFTER THIS OVERVIEW, the planning process began. A theme that quickly emerged was dissatisfaction with the consequences of the lack of planning for the park in the last 32 years. Because there is no parking lot, visitors park their cars along Fenwick Drive, sometimes inconveniencing people who live on the street. In addition, homeless people often camp in the thick undergrowth of the eastern woods. Though described as open space, the middle section of the park is a wasteland of gravel and the concrete foundations of demolished buildings.
Grandfield described parking as “one of the sticky wickets” that may bedevil planners of the new and improved Huntington Park. The county needs more rectangular fields for sports like soccer. The new Huntington could accommodate such a field, but not the impermeable surface area of the parking lot that must accompany it.
Park Authority area manager Joe Nelson, who oversees day-to-day operations at Huntington, asked the group directly, “Would you prefer to have parking?” A show of hands revealed a strong majority in favor of organized parking. But even if such a lot could be built, it would be more than a year away. In the meantime, Nelson suggested placing bollards (barriers) where the streets meet the park, so cars could not be pulled onto the grass of the park itself.
Questions were also raised about the undergrowth of the woodlands. Because it is meant to be “meadowland” in the Chesapeake Bay Resource Protection Area, it is bush-hogged only twice yearly. One man complained that he was likely to pick up ticks when he walked his dog though the tall grass of the woods.
But the most pressing concern was the number of people who don’t enter the woods at all. Because few in the community use it, people from outside the community often do. The homeless encampments that are common in those woods were the major subject of concern for the attendees. The neglect that makes the area so uncomfortable for those with homes in the area creates a valuable resource for the homeless: an ignored place where “campers,” as one woman euphemistically called them, can live relatively undisturbed. Although the police periodically drive them out, the homeless often return to set up tents in the scrubby woods and tall grass.
MOST ATTENDEES of the meeting were excited about the prospects for the park. Jackie Hutchinson suggested creating an outdoor classroom for students of Mount Eagle and Cameron Elementary Schools. The classroom would transform the pollution and degradation of the watershed into an opportunity for students to study “the environmental issues Cameron Run might face.” Grandfield said this idea need not await a master plan, Hutchinson could immediately contact the Park Authority’s Environmental Resource Division about organizing such a project.
The most popular idea was raised early in the meeting. A woman suggested creating a fenced-in leashless dog area like the one in Gristmill Park. The proposal drew enthusiastic cries from the crowd. Several people said that broaching this idea was the only reason they had come to the meeting. Grandfield encouraged the suggestion. He did not think a dog park would add to the park’s impermeable surface area and said the first step in getting a dog park will be the formation of a dog community group.
Ray Novitske suggested more adult oriented activities, like tennis. He added that the Washington Bengals Cricket Club had offered to maintain a cricket field if the Parks Authority would agree to install one.
Harrison Riehle, a sixth-grade student at Cameron Elementary, suggested fencing off the playground to keep dogs away from the young children. But Nelson warned that these fences can have the opposite effect. “Sometimes [an enclosed playground] actually becomes a small dog park,” he said, then went on to describe being berated by dog-owners after asking them to remove their dogs from playgrounds.
Nelson had a follow-up question. “Can the Boy Scouts do service projects?” he asked. Grandfield was delighted with the idea.
Participants in the meeting also voiced strong support for making walking and biking trails.