Summary of Public Briefing and Open House for Go Ape Program Introduction
Park Authority Public Information Officer Judy Pedersen began the meeting at 7:30 p.m. with an introduction of special guests and a summary of the agenda. Due to unforeseen interest in this new proposal, the gathering was moved from the park visitor center to the larger Nature Center. More than 75 people attended.
The program began with a video presentation and Powerpoint presentation outlining the program's successful operations at other sites. Specific information about the Riverbend facility and possible community concerns were also presented by Dan D'Agostino, one of the owners of Go Ape.
Serena Wilson, president of the Friends of Riverbend Park (FORB) provided background on why Go Ape should be supported and noted that the FORB had decided to endorse the program. She explained that over the past four years the Park Authority General Fund budget has been cut by 25%. She explained that as a result of these reductions Riverbend Park has lost a third of its staff. She mentioned that 390,000 people come to this park every year. The Friends of Riverbend Park has lobbied the Board of Supervisors noting that the park needs to be funded. FORB has started a lot of programs such as astronomy and kayaking. Wilson noted that the astronomy program drew 700 participants and caused no traffic or crowd issues. LL Bean has given the park 10 canoes. Wilson took a look at the ropes course design and no trees will be removed or damaged. The activity is all in the tree tops. She noted that Go Ape is willing to work with the park, that the program is environmentally sensitive and that the revenues will come to the park. Wilson pointed out that the Fairfax County Park Authority doesn't have a statutory obligation to notify the public when they start a new program. She added that if people don't like those rules that apply to public process they can send a letter to the Board of Supervisors stating that you don't like the rules. She believes that it's a great educational idea and the Friends of Riverbend Park approve the course 100%.
Robin Rentsch, speaking as a park user and well-known activist on behalf of the environment, mentioned it is difficult for natural resource centers to provide their own funding. Go Ape will provide funds and people will love it and it will be hidden in the park. Friends of Riverbend Park have enough money to get three interns to expand the natural resource park. She asked the public to please support this and come pull out some invasives, just like you come out and protest. Riverbend is 97% natural area and only 3% is facilities.
Bill Waugh, president of the local homeowner's association gave a PowerPoint presentation opposing Go Ape. He thinks Fairfax County has done a poor job providing Go Ape information and had issues with the agency's "transparency". He doesn't understand why the community didn't find out until ten days ago. Go Ape is not equal to protecting this valued resource, environmental stewardship, proper land use and management, and inconsistent with the intent use of the park. The traffic is not manageable, there is additional traffic predicted. For example on a Sunday, from noon to 4 p.m. there are 300 to 400 cars on Jeffrey Road. The course isn't consistent with Fairfax County's Natural Resource Management Plan for Riverbend Park. It violates the parks primary objectives of no "off trails" activity and Riverbend's mission statement. Bulldozing, selling shirts, etc. isn't consistent with the mission goals. Riverbend Park needs to stay a natural area. Waugh suggested sending Go Ape to Lake Fairfax Park, where there is already a water facility, carousel and fields.
Comments and questions were then taken from other members of the public. The first speaker said he appreciates the park as a jewel and was wondering what the impact would be on the wildlife, adding shouldn't something be done to determine what happens to the birds before going through installing a ropes course.
Park Manager Marty Smith stated that there have been two breeding bird surveys and the impact is negligible.
A gentleman asked how he could obtain information about wildlife and the traffic impact. He would like to see the source of statistics. He also wanted to know if comments from the meeting go on public record and what difference will the community's input make? There were other questions regarding Supervisor Foust and whether he would be apprised of the community opposition. It was noted that he had been previously informed about the program and that he had a representative at the meeting.
PIO Pedersen responded by saying that the county follows an information process and there are public records and the Park Authority will provide the information that is public and that is requested. Resource Management Division Director Cindy Walsh also mentioned that if it's a program and service, they don't have to go through public information input.
A woman asked why admission can't be charged at the Park. Pedersen explained that the ropes course had been something which was under discussion informally for more than eight years. As far as charging admission or a parking fee, she noted that the Park Authority has passed a fee that could be implemented but at the urging of the Board of Supervisors had not imposed it. (Sometimes fee collection can cause traffic backups or parking in neighborhoods adjacent to a park).
Some in attendance wanted to know more about the potential disturbance of wildlife, staff being cut, controlling traffic, picking up trash? Pedersen responded by telling the public that staff will address these issues and we will create a website where the materials we have are posted.
A gentleman asked if this was the site of an historic farm that was part of the Underground Railroad. Manager Smith answered that the course will be in the farm area and that the state biologist and conservancy had no issues with it. The area to be used is highly disturbed and includes a house which will be torn down.
Another speaker suggested there should be other ideas to get revenue, since this project only provides about 15 cents per visitor. It was mentioned again that this information will be publicly available and that Supervisor Foust and the Park Authority Board can and will review all input. Input from the public has been taken into great consideration.
One gentleman encouraged changes in the public process from commercial ventures at parks but noted that the program was a positive thing. He said that Boy scouts can go out in nature instead of playing video games. Traffic has little impact with few cars going in every 30 minutes. Kayakers add most of the traffic on the road. This is a good, healthy, safe course and the land isn't near anyone's house. This course is dedicated to getting exercise and this is a good thing for kids and consistent with the use of the park.
One woman reported she is a three year resident and the reason she bought her home was because of the park. She noted that she almost died because of the trucks driving down the road. She believes the wrong people are at the meeting. This sounds like an amazing thing to have and believes that everyone is getting ahead of themselves. She told the crowd, "shame on us for not being Friends of Riverbend Park". She added, "This summer has been unusually quiet" and believes that Fairfax County Park Authority is getting the bad end of the stick.
Another speaker mentioned that there is an amusement area at Great Falls Park and suggested that Go Ape be considered at that location. Staff noted that Great Falls Park is a national park and not owned by the Fairfax County Park Authority.
Manager Smith answered a question about traffic management by saying that you can book online and have a pass on the windshield to get immediate access to the park.
A man was interested in seeing the contract. Pedersen responded by saying that it is a public document and will be made available.
D'Agostino also mentioned that there will be a test run of minimal park space to nine people. If they cannot accommodate 14 people every 20 minutes, they will not increase the number of people coming in for the ropes course. Staff will be there and people will be turned around and rescheduled or refunded.
A speaker mentioned that morning traffic is an issue and that is the normal run of the mill. Jeffrey Road is very dangerous, people speed and the community wouldn't appreciate more traffic. She would like to keep the park a natural preserve.
A woman asked if this was a year-round facility and Go Ape staff responded by saying that it is a nine month run with no operations during the winter.
A man found the proposal offensive and in conflict with the Natural Resource Management Plan. He asked where the initial investment of $600,000 would be coming from to build the facility. D'Agostino told him the funding would come from his wife, himself and a loan.
A man asked what success has Go Ape had with Richmond Parks. Dan responded by saying that it was still in discussion. The gentleman leading the project resigned his job, so now it's under new administration. They have put in a proposal and it has been accepted in Pocahontas Park.
One member of the assembly wanted to know what happens "if this goes belly up," will there be funding to restore what has been demolished? "What is the second idea for a commercial venture in the park," he asked. The speaker is offended by the operation and wanted to also know if there would be buses going into the park.
Director Walsh mentioned that this program actually helps carry forward our stewardship mission and also gets new groups into the park. D'Agostino mentioned that he and the U.K. are a joint franchise. Pedersen also mentioned that the Fairfax County Park Authority is very proud that it raised about 60% of its revenues. She explains that the agency is looking at its core mission and we are moving away from businesses we should not be into such as the property rental business. When this opportunity came up, this gave us the chance to provide a new and interesting service through a public private partnership. One man continued to insist that a public process was mandated to which Pedersen explained that master planning is a different planning process. She added, "We are going to see more public private partnerships in the future."
One man noted that his greatest concern is the next step of systemic encroachment which is the reason why he moved to Great Falls. He would like to preserve and stop Go Ape now.
Another speaker suggested that if the Park Authority wants something like Go Ape, then they should take it to another park. She also heard discussion of a signed lease or contract. Operations Manager Todd Brown mentioned there is a contract signed for seven years.
A woman asked if under the current agreement, are trees going to be cut down and how quickly the course would be built.
D'Agostino responded by saying that no full grown trees will be removed. Go Ape doesn't have a green light, but would like to be operational in spring 2012 and it takes about a month and a half to build.
Bill Brown of the Audubon Society said he received a call three days prior to the meeting and it was the first time he heard about this ropes course. He shares a lot of concerns. Audubon has advocated for natural areas and sometimes has lost battles. This sounded like an amusement park. Brown was asked by the Audubon Board of Directors to speak on their behalf and would like to advocate for wildlife. He has no proof of anything he has heard and takes Park Manager Smith's statement at face value. He suspects there will be some damage to some birds. He has no real knowledge of the impact on reptiles and amphibians and would not like to see them disturbed. He is sorry that the Park Authority chose this park and is very skeptical that this money will remain in Riverbend Park. There has to be a place for a natural resource park, he reiterated. Riverbend has always been that place and he would like to keep it that way. He intends to go to Rock Creek Park and see if there is a disturbance to wildlife or lack thereof.
A woman mentioned that the public information office has been facilitating this for eight years. There are bad guys, there those who as public servants, don't serve the public. She suggested that the Park Authority has abrogated their responsibilities. They pose a threat due to lack of outreach and she suggested a more transparent process. She noted that it "is pretty clear that there are many people that oppose" this idea and added, "Now that you know they don't want Go Ape, it should be moved to Lake Fairfax."
D'Agostino mentioned that Go Ape is excited to work with Fairfax County Park Authority and think that it's fitting to have it in Riverbend Park.
A woman asked who made the decision of this venue for the public meeting. Ops Manager Brown responded by saying the visitor center is much smaller.
A man mentioned that they will fight to maintain Riverbend Park as is.
Pedersen concluded the meeting at 10 p.m.