Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Chesterfield investing millions in COVID relief funds to enhance and develop parks across county

The county is spending $6.6 million to develop the James River Conservation Area, a 108- acre waterfront property east of Interstate 95, into usable parkland. ASH DANIEL

The county is spending $6.6 million to develop the James River Conservation Area, a 108- acre waterfront property east of Interstate 95, into usable parkland. ASH DANIEL

As he has on multiple occasions over the past decade, Chesterfield resident Roland Stokes addressed the Board of Supervisors during a public comment period at its June meeting and politely urged county administration to provide funding for a long-awaited public park in the Dale District.

The board’s chairman, Dale District Supervisor Jim Holland, advised Stokes to stay tuned; there was good news on the horizon regarding the development timeline of Cogbill Park, a 212-acre property acquired by the county more than 30 years ago. Last month, the supervisors voted unanimously to allocate $25 million – more than a third of the county’s $68.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding – for parks maintenance and enhancement, with the potential for an additional $12 million should other local projects be deemed ineligible under federal guidelines.

The unprecedented investment in Chesterfield Parks and Recreation, which saw record usage last year in response to COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing mandates, will enable the department to proceed more quickly than expected on new facilities in the county’s most economically disadvantaged areas.

“That means some people in our department are going to be very busy,” said Bob Smet, Chesterfield’s parks and recreation director, in a recent interview. “The one-time infusion of cash has ripples that stretch out over a number of years. It allows us to move things we might have had in the 5- to 10-year window closer to present day and finish that work sooner.”

Development of park facilities is a critical element of the county’s ongoing efforts to revitalize aging communities that have significant concentrations of poverty: the Falling Creek area along U.S. Route 1, the Chippenham Parkway/Belmont Road corridor and the southern village of Ettrick.

It’s an issue of equity and access. Unlike western Chesterfield’s newer residential communities, most subdivisions in the eastern part of the county weren’t developed with lavish amenities. In a suburb that remains mostly car-centric, that leaves many low-income families with few convenient options for exercise and recreation.

“It’s about quality of life,” said Holland, who has represented the Dale District on the Board of Supervisors since 2007. “It’s critically important that the message is sent and acted upon that every citizen in this county is valued. The strategic investments we are making will help meet the needs of all of our residents.”

While the department has not yet released a detailed plan for spending its new federal windfall, it almost certainly will include funding to initiate development of public parks in the Dale and Bermuda districts – both of which have experienced significant population growth over the past decade.

According to county demographic estimates, the number of people living in Bermuda increased from 64,941 in 2010 to 71,438 in 2019, an increase of 10%. Dale’s population grew from 62,115 to 68,297 over the same span, or 9.95%.

The county acquired the land now designated for Cogbill Park in 1989, possibly as a school site; when changes in wetlands regulations subsequently precluded such a use, the property was transferred to Parks and Recreation.

Chesterfield’s five-year capital improvement program includes $150,000 in the current fiscal year for design and engineering, as well as $3.2 million in fiscal year 2023 for the park’s Phase I construction: a main access road and parking, picnic area with shelter, grass athletic field for unreserved, non-league play, sport courts, playground, trails and restrooms.

Parks and Recreation staff are planning to hold an informational meeting this fall to discuss the proposed enhancements and ensure each aligns with the community’s priorities.

The CIP also budgets $6.6 million for initial development of the James River Conservation Area, a 108-acre waterfront property east of Interstate 95 that was acquired by the county in 2016.

As required by 2019 General Assembly legislation, Dominion Energy will foot that bill to construct an access road, three-ramp public boat launch and parking for trucks and boat trailers – replacing the county-owned Dutch Gap boat launch, which will be inaccessible for 15 to 20 years while Dominion removes tons of coal ash from two massive holding ponds at the Chesterfield Power Station and transports the material to its new lined landfill. (The county intends to fund a second boat launch further south on the river, at the former site of River’s Bend Golf Course.)

Parks and Recreation has received a $264,000 federal grant to cover more than half the cost of carving a trail from the historic Falling Creek Ironworks to the James River. Another $4 million could come from the county’s planned 2022 bond referendum to put in picnic areas and construct a trail network at the southern end of the park.

“We definitely have seen an increase in importance in parks since the start of COVID,” said Bermuda District Supervisor Jim Ingle. “Just as there are food deserts, we have ‘parks deserts’ in different parts of the county. We’re taking steps to serve all of our citizens with good parks.”

There’s also an economic justification for public investment in park property.

In June 2019, a consultant with the Philadelphia-based firm Urban Partners told the Board of Supervisors that $15 million in improvements to the James River Conservation Area would generate $25 million in economic activity and increase nearby property values by $50.5 million.

Isaac Kwon, whose company was hired to conduct a market analysis of the northern Route 1 corridor, noted that many national studies have recognized such a “halo effect” for privately owned properties located within a half-mile radius of public infrastructure upgrades.

That is significant because most of Chesterfield’s section of the proposed Fall Line Trail will run along Route 1 to Chester Road, before following an abandoned rail line south to Ettrick and crossing the Appomattox River into the city of Petersburg.

About 16 miles of the 43-mile Fall Line Trail will be located within Chesterfield, the most of any individual jurisdiction.

According to Jesse Smith, deputy county administrator for community development, the county already has secured funding for six projects that will construct 3 miles of the Ashland-to-Petersburg trail.

“In terms of how we execute the other 13 miles of trail, that’s to be determined,” Smith told the Board of Supervisors at a May work session. “We need to figure out what are the local, state and federal roles – who funds what? – and what is the role of the [new Central Virginia Transportation Authority] in funding that.”

Ingle thinks the Fall Line Trail can be even more successful than the popular Capital Trail that runs east-west between Richmond and Williamsburg – primarily because it will traverse more densely populated areas and provide opportunities for users to stop off for lunch, refreshments or shopping during their travels.

“It’s going to feel like you’re going somewhere,” he said. “The Capital Trail is nice, but there’s not a lot to see and do out there. I would imagine if you were [a commercial establishment] located along the Fall Line Trail, you’d do very well with that.”

Further to the south, Smet said Parks and Recreation staff also are “super-excited” about projects in the works along the Appomattox River basin.

The department expects to acquire an additional 74 acres later this year to expand the Radcliffe Conservation Area from 97 to 171 acres. Its long-term plans for the park include creation of a trail network that eventually will be linked with trails planned on the south side of the river by the nonprofit Friends of the Lower Appomattox River.

“Then all of a sudden you’re talking about miles and miles of trails next to the river, really taking advantage of that whole corridor down there,” Smet added.

Between the James and Appomattox, Chesterfield has about 92 miles of river frontage. Matoaca District Supervisor Kevin Carroll sees public water access as a key asset for the eventual redevelopment of Ettrick.

“Just from a recreational standpoint, there is so much opportunity here,” he said. “It’s a beautiful area. People are really missing out by not giving it a second look.”

Sharon Entsminger, the department’s marketing and communications supervisor, acknowledged many longtime Ettrick residents associate themselves more closely with neighboring Petersburg than Chesterfield. Likewise, there’s a significant language barrier in the Falling Creek area, which is home to the county’s largest Hispanic population.

Conducting effective outreach to those neighborhoods, and learning what they want and don’t want in a public park, is a “huge challenge,” she said. “We’re going to have to think outside the box to reach some unique communities and get that input so we can properly serve them and they feel comfortable using the facilities.”

The county’s investment in new park projects also comes with a word of caution regarding the potential for gentrification. Parks have been shown to make low-income neighborhoods more attractive to homebuyers, leading to increased property values and displacement of the very residents such facilities are intended to serve. (Though research into this phenomenon, known as “green gentrification,” has tended to focus mostly on urban areas.)

“We want to see property values go up, but we’re not trying to push out anyone who is trying to make an honest living and do the best for their family,” Ingle said. “We want to find opportunities for them to stay.” ¦

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