One of the most appealing things about living in the Potomac Subregion is easy access to the C&O Canal National Historic Park that forms our western border. County planners consider it a vital feature to our Master Plan and a photo of Great Falls Tavern graces the cover of that document. People of all ages enjoy it for the wonder of the Falls, a stroll through the leaves of autumn, a hike on the rugged Billy Goat Trail. They kayak the river, bird watch, fish, bicycle, paint the dream there. Boy Scouts earn a Canal Patch for hiking or bicycling the 184 miles of the C&O towpath.
Now the county is reaching build-out. Land is at a premium. Those who believe growth should be perpetual are casting about for ways to squeeze more development into a county bursting at the seams, with an overcrowded transportation infrastructure still based on the automobile. Master Plans for the various subregions of the county have always been vulnerable. Though a lot of work goes into the creation of them, they are still guidance documents and subject to the whims of politicians and the pressures of innumerable ambitions. Our job, as citizens and as civic organizations is to keep to the intent of our Master Plans and defend the usually thoughtful, long term planning that goes into charting a course expected to be valid for at least 20 years.
To many visitors, the park is simply a recreational trail along the Potomac River. But the ribbon of green from Cumberland to Georgetown is one of the most diverse natural areas in the United States. It passes through four major physiographic regions and protects the largest extant block of upland forest in Maryland's Piedmont, known as the Goldmine Tract near Great Falls. The Park is home to a recorded 1200 vascular plant species, 192 species of birds, 64 of fish, 62 of reptiles and 47 species of mammals. The Potomac Gorge alone contains more than 200 globally or state rare natural communities. Yet 85 percent of the park lies in the one hundred year floodplain of the Potomac River and experiences major flooding every 12 years on average. Truly a wonder of nature, brimming with cultural and historic resources, yet the C&O Canal is constantly at risk, and sadly at times from those who use it most. Out of 386 National Parks in the federal system, the C&O Canal is one of the top twenty visited in the country with between three and four million a year - more visitors than Yellowstone
The National Parks Conservation Association, a non-profit advocacy organization, in its State of the Parks Program identifies problems within our National Park system and generates support to resolve them. It developed a rating system to score the conditions of natural and cultural resources as well as the overall stewardship capacity based on budget and staff shortfalls, along with management issues caused by pressures like deer and increased imperviousness within the Potomac watershed. In the area of stewardship the C&O Canal NHP scored a poor 44 out of a 100, chiefly because of the park's severe lack of funding and staff, flood damage, and maintenance backlogs. Species inventory in the park is incomplete simply because there is not staff to do it. Visitors cannot become strong advocates for resources they don't know or understand. Quite naturally though, such a park inspires a host of helpmates like the Friends of Great Falls Tavern and other groups who raise money and provide volunteer labor for needs not being met.
We, the public, are the most vital stewardship component, and complacency the greatest threat. Yes, we have a right to expect the National Park Service to take care of this land in our name. But we have a responsibility to lobby federal officials for the funding necessary to do so and make it clear to our park officials that we don't want conservation lands used for private development, polluted by adjacent property owners, or given over to clamoring interests or user groups. We owe it to ourselves to learn more about this park and to take responsibility for 'noticing' when something is amiss - and we need a structure and a response effort from the Park Service equal to our caring. To be blessed with a national treasure in our backyard is a privilege that should not be taken for granted.
Serpentine Barrens Conservation Park - The Planning Board approved a Management Plan with access within the park limited to hiking, maintaining equestrian link trails that skirt the park, and confining interpretive activities to the South Serpentine. It agreed with our testimony, and rejected a staff recommendation to change the name to Serpentine Oaks.
Bill 27-05 Forest Conservation Penalties - On December 1, the County Council's T&E Committee (Transportation & Environment) approved all the recommendations of the C&O Canal Task Force, and will transmit them to the full Council for action on December 6. They include significant increases in both minimum and maximum administrative civil penalties and the addition of criminal penalties of up to six months in jail for destroying forest in Montgomery County.
Preservation of the Agricultural Reserve - WMCCA has lent support to a number of issues before the Planning Board and County Council to prohibit extension of water and sewer and the incursion of large Private Institutional Facilities (PIFs) with increased imperviousness that threaten the viability of agricultural preservation lands.
Carol Embrey, who has done so much to bring to completion sidewalks in the Village, shared recent correspondence on the acquisition process under the county's Division of Capitol Development. Two of three property owners of the proposed sidewalk right-of-way on River Road have indicated willingness to enter into an agreement with the county. The third remains an obstacle. Since the Executive Order authorizing the project has been finalized, the county could put remaining properties into "Quick Take," but is reluctant to resort to this measure.
Koh Property, Country Inn zoning change - The application for a zoning change from residential to the Country Inn Zone for this property has been indefinitely postponed. It had already been postponed four times and the Hearing Examiner's office has taken this action until such time as the plan is "ready for review."
Normandy Farm, Country Inn zoning change - The long awaited hearing on this application will be heard on December 19. We will testify on our concerns on the accessory uses that accompany the zone.
Council Bill SRA 5-04 - This bill introduced by Council Members Floreen, Knapp, and Denis to transfer site plan enforcement from Park and Planning to the Department of Permitting Services is of grave concern to WMCCA. There is an excellent chance that the change would make the situation much worse, and would deprive citizens and communities of the limited remedies now available to them. We will discuss this in more depth at our December meeting.
Bolger Center - The Bolger Center, using the Federal facility status enjoyed for so long by the Postal Service, is operating a for-profit restaurant, hotel, and conference business without any inspections, fees, or taxes that other similar institutions in the county are subject to. We understand that the county has billed the property owner for back taxes, and has rescinded their non-profit status. This could obviously end up in Federal Court for a long time, but it is an encouraging sign that the county is taking the issue seriously.
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