News

Deliberations Begin on Fellows Tract Use

The Fellows Property, a 1.9-acre area of land situated at 604 S. Oak Street, has strong links to both the City’s history and community. The Rec & Parks Advisory Board held an unofficial meeting earlier this month to discuss community input on how to best utilize the space. One of the main themes persists to be ecological conservation, as the area is home to large amount of floral and animal diversity. (Photo: News-Press).

By Alex Russell

Community deliberations have begun on how to utilize the so-called Fellows Property, recently acquired by the City adjacent to the Oak Street Elementary School.


The Fellows Property, a roughly 1.9 acre area of land located at 604 South Oak St. in Falls Church, was purchased by the City of Falls Church in early 2019 and has since been the subject of numerous surveys, meetings and a development plan that is still going through its public comments phase.


In December of last year, the Master Park Plan for the Fellows Property, drafted by the Falls Church Recreation and Parks Advisory Board, was amended to reflect continued input from the community. As outlined in section A, page 1, of the Draft Master Plan, the core purpose of the park hinges on preserving and protecting the area’s natural resources, providing “environmental education,” promoting “environmental stewardship,” and providing a “variety of passive and limited active recreation activities for all age groups.”


An unofficial, recorded Rec and Parks Advisory Board meeting, held online through Microsoft Teams, took place Wednesday, February 2.


Charles O’Hara, Chair of the Advisory Board, began the meeting by explaining that there would be “no voting and no decision making,” as there was no quorum and therefore this session could not constitute an official gathering of the Board.


Members of the Board, including Caroline Lian, the Board’s new City Council liaison, as well as members of the Rec & Parks department and several long-time F.C. residents, were present during the meeting.
Daniel J. Schlitt, the Rec & Parks Director, offered background on the Master Plan and how the process began with “a very simple survey of the community after the City purchased the land and razed the buildings” that were situated there.


Jessica Hilgendorf, Rec & Parks Senior Administrative Assistant, went through a brief synopsis of the comments that have thus far been compiled by the Board, synthesizing public input that continuously underscored the desire to preserve and maintain the natural, ecological facets of the property.


“Overall, there is a strong positive response to keeping this park as natural as possible,” began Hilgendorf. “Some areas that did receive a few comments were the children’s play area,” with one of the concerns being the “the artificial play area with the…tires, lumber, pots, and pans” and how it was not as “natural” as some people would like it to be and that “it doesn’t keep with the environmental and ecological education benefits of the” location.


Hilgendorf moved on to the matter of pathways and bike trails, noting that “pedestrian-only walkways with decomposable mulch or woodchips are a preference” and that “paved pathways for bikes should be avoided,” as biking does not “fit with the plan of the park.” She also listed recommendations to “keep lighting minimal,” as light pollution can “disrupt firefly mating behavior.”


“Regarding [the] community garden,” Hilgendorf explained, “there are comments that” acknowledge the suitability of the Fellows Property for an undertaking of this kind, however, the garden “may take up too much space or benefit too few people.” It may also “come into conflict with wildlife on the property.”


As Hilgendorf finished her outline of the core ideas, Schlitt opened up the floor for people to voice new concerns or comment on any of the established points and suggestions. Bruce Byers, an ecologist, consultant and Falls Church resident. Byers stressed that “one of the main features that is not emphasized or even mentioned, I think, in the property description of the Draft Plan is that the northern 25 percent, roughly, by visual estimate of the property is canopied, old, natural forest, which is very different than the rest of the landscape.”


He proceeded to detail how that chunk of the property “has a very disproportionate share of the biological diversity [that] the species, the wildlife, values,” containing “both plants and animals as well as the habitat for larval fireflies in the forest understory and so forth. So that really should be emphasized.”


“There are a lot of behaviors becoming established” at that location “because there’s no signage that” otherwise prohibits it. Byers shared his experiences seeing “people going in and creating social trails, moving wood and debris…I even met a guy a few weeks ago who brought his chainsaw and he was sawing up a downed tree.”


“There are many dogs off-leash in that area now… I think the City should, in order to prevent bad behaviors from being established,” put up signs that “dogs should be on-leash, [the] owner should pick up their dog waste, and also that they should not…build paths” in the more densely-forested portion of the property.


Byers was adamant in his rejection of a proposed pathway that would stretch its way around the perimeter of the property, stressing that the City would exclude it from their planning if they “really wanted to emphasize the ecological value of that old canopy forest.”


In addition, he expressed a wish to reforest the Fellows area with a new type of American Chestnut that can withstand the blight.


Combining the issues of proper signage and ecological education, one resident suggested installing, “like we have in some of the parks, the display case that can be locked” and which is able to contain a variety of notices and information, making for an area designated for “rotating education,” as opposed to the usual kind of “static” signage.


Stormwater mitigation was touched upon briefly, at which point the conversation turned to the practice of conservation landscaping, highlighting the usefulness of “native plants and native shrubs” as a long-term, sustainable solution.


Near the end of the meeting, the list of removed items on page 7 of the Draft Master Plan was brought up for clarification as the final bullet point listed the suggestion “certification as a wildlife habitat.”


One resident expressed confusion over the fact that this certification would be a welcome addition to the development of the Fellows park and should therefore not have been on the “removed” list. Schlitt stated that this would be readdressed.


For more information on the Fellows Property and the ongoing process surrounding its transformation into a sustainable community park, visit fallschurchva.gov/2131/Fellows-Property.