Monday, March 02, 2009

Political Storm Coming to Gulf Branch

The signs of an approaching storm were everywhere on Saturday at the Gulf Branch Nature Center. The air was cold, and the light wind during the day had picked up into steady, chilly breeze in the afternoon. Grey, overcast clouds enclosed the barren forest, limited the sky. A real, late-winter storm was brewing.
On fence posts and the sides of log buildings hung more signs of another kind of storm.
“Shame!” one read, and “Save Gulf Branch Nature Center!” read another. One listed a March 14 rally at the park.

Signs of an approaching political storm were tacked up all over the Gulf Branch Nature Center Park. (Click to enlarge the image.)

In the proposed budget released Feb. 21, County Manager Ron Carlee has asked to close and demolish the “obsolete” Gulf Branch Nature Center building, moving all the animals and indoor programming to the Potomac Overlook Regional Park, not quite two miles away, or to other locations in Arlington. Outdoor programming at the forge and log cabin in the Gulf Branch park would continue, the county has said.
Email listservs buzzed over it. Lillian Prins started a facebook page which now has over 1,900 friends. Gulf Branch Neighborhood resident Suzy Wagner started a web site and petition. Over 2,000 electronic signatures have been collected.
Ms. Wagner does not believe the claims that the building is obsolete and that the programs could be absorbed into other places in Arlington.

A facebook page, online petition and web site blossomed quickly and already have thousands of members. (Click to enlarge the image.)

“It’s not accurate. It’s not true,” she said.
She believes that other places like Potomac Overlook and Long Branch Nature Center (just off S. Carlin Springs Road) do not have room either for all of the indoor activities or for all of the animals—Gulf Branch has a beehive, lizards, turtles and fish.
She wondered what would happen to the Native American exhibit in the lower level of the building. The display of weapons, pottery shards and a reproduction of an Indian canoe are part of the 25-site Native American historical trail in Virginia.
The rest rooms will be gone when the building is demolished, so the programming outside will be limited, she said.
Ms. Wagner lives on the trail that leads to the park, and she said she still hears her late father calling it “the gem in the woods behind you.”

A draft comparison of the two nature centers. (Provided by Arlington County, Click to enlarge the image.)

If the center is cut from the budget as a step toward more efficiency, it would not close until the end of the summer to preserve summer camps, said Susan Kalish, the director of marketing and communication for the Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources. The cut would save about $132,000 in this year’s operational budget and would cut the position of the nature center director.
She has not been let go yet since the budget has not been adopted. Given the uncertainty of her position, however, she is elligible for other jobs in the county.
“Hopefully she’ll [Director Denise Chauvette will] apply for something else,” Ms. Kalish said, adding that the staffing cut had nothing to do with performance as all the staff and naturalists are good people. Some positions in the county government have been made available for people who wish to, and are qualified to, move. Larger severance packages than normal are being awarded for those who leave, Ms. Kalish said.
If the building were gone, the county would not need to spend the money on projected repairs and maintenance.
“A recent report said that we had to spend about $236,800 in maintenance to keep it running by [the end of] 2010,” Ms. Kalish said. By the end of 2024, that number is about $910,000, about $56,000 per year.
Of the $236,000, $153,000 is to fix the fire panel, Ms. Kalish said. But the old stone house nestled on a tree-covered hillside needs a lot of other work, too. The county needs to repair shingles, overlay asphalt, repair the retaining wall, and provide safe access to the attic, among other repairs.
“Of everything I just said, $71,000 has already been done,” Ms. Kalish said.
If it is so close to unusable, Ms. Wagner wondered, “then why did they invest $70,000 in it last year?” She said she feels as though north Arlingtonians pay much of the county’s taxes, but that their services get taken.
“I don’t think they’re trying to punish us who provide all the revenue to the county,” she said, but with the fights over Gulf Branch and, in the past, the Cherrydale branch library, the county does not see their needs.
The age of the building is not the only issue.
“The other bigger issue, I think, is that it’s not ADA accessible,” Ms. Kalish said. The building, an old home with access to the main floor only via a stairway, was never meant to be a nature center and is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. A certain level of major renovation eventually would force the county to make the center compliant, she said. She said that the federal government considers the Potomac Overlook center to be ADA compliant.
Ms. Wagner countered that Potomac Overlook Park with its long hill from the parking lot to the center is still not wheelchair friendly.
Closing the Gulf Branch center will not have to start until end of summer after camps and other planned programming have finished. The pond (the spring peepers are already coming out), the creek, the spring house, forge, and other outdoor programming can stay, Ms. Kalish said. Pretty much all the staffing for programming will stay, but they will not need the director.
David Turvene, of Lyon Park, walked the woods with his children on Saturday. He said he comes rather often since it’s a great place for the kids to see a little nature.
“I think it’s a shame” that the center might close, he said, adding, “I understand the budget issue, though.”
He said he is involved with people fighting for funding the Thomas Jefferson Center and school and knows that county will have to make tough decisions. “It’s all priorities,” he said.

Volunteer Jeff Dolan wonders what will happen with the park if paid staff is not on hand to answer questions. (Click to enlarge the image.)

On the wooded hill above the nature center Saturday, Jeff Dolan piled invasive plants that he pulled up from around the trees. He is a volunteer who has a section of the woods to care for; his section, like those of other volunteers, is marked with a little, black sign on the side of the trail. He plucked enough English ivy and other plants to fill a large garbage bag.
Mr. Dolan has worked in the woods a couple times and said he will miss the center’s staff if they have to work from the Potomac Overlook Regional Park.
“We won’t have them to go to,” he said. It is a big deal for the environment of the park, he said. “They do a lot of good stuff.”
Ms. Wagner said that she fears the county is not saying all that is really going on. She fears that if the center is gone, the park itself will fall into disrepair.
$150,000 a year to run the center is not all that much money, and some of that could be made up by charging more for summer camps and other uses, such as birthday parties at the center. She said the county could rely on more volunteers and a full-time director that is shared with Potomac Overlook park. There are ways to close the budget gap without closing the park, she said. If the park falls into disrepair, however, the county might just look to sell it to a developer.
Closing the center “just doesn’t add up,” she said.

Related sites…
  • Gulf Branch Nature Center main site.
  • Gulf Branch Nature Center county fact sheet.
  • Save Gulf Branch.
  • Save GBNC facebook page.

  • Labels: , , ,

    Thank you for providing the public with this article. This issue has really caused a stir among members of the community including my family and I. The nature center truly is a gem in our neighborhood, and would be missed by many.

    I think that those who are organizing the fight to save the center can and should take advantage of the recent display of the community's support for the center and recruit more volunteers to help pull the center through these difficult financial times we face.

    I think there's an opportunity here for both fund-raising and for recruiting man-power to staff the center with more volunteers. I'll bet that at least half of the folks who signed the petition would be willing to donate at least $10 to save the center, which would come out to over $10,000. I also suspect that at least 10% of those same people would be willing to donate their time as needed to support the center's activities and/or necessary renovations. For example, it costs a lot more to make a building handicapped accessible when you have to pay top dollar for labor, but it only takes a plan, materials and about 5 volunteers who know something about basic construction to get the job done.

    Also, from a political standpoint, with respect to convincing Arlington County's board, presentation of a plan including fund-raising efforts, volunteer commitments and a thoughtful demonstration on the value of the center to the community will probably be more effective than a petition signed by a rightfully angry group of concerned citizens.

    We as members of the community should keep in mind, this is a bad PR decision for the board to have to make. I don't think anyone wants to be responsible for pulling the plug on the center. We should balance our efforts of displaying our dissatisfaction and concern, with demonstrating that we as neighbors can work together and that we are willing and capable of taking on some of the financial and administrative challenges the center faces.
    Yikes! The county is going to reduce child care center inspections thereby endangering our youngest citizens, reduce substance abuse programs for people trying to get their lives back straight, eliminate 2 Women Infant and Children program locations, eliminate a HAZMAT position for the Pentagon and eliminate a Victim's Specialist in the commonwealth attorney's office and you're all worried about closing one building and moving programming to another nearby location?!? Good grief, talk about misplaced priorities! As for Ms. Wagner's whining about North Arlington not receiving its fair share of services, I'm sure that South Arlingtonians still waiting for renovations to TJ Middle School and Wakefield High would (rightfully) disagree. Oh, and in case it matters, I live in North Arlington (though, with comments like Ms. Wagner's I'm sorry to admit it . . .).
    I am letting as many people know as possible.

    This building does not need to be made ADA compliant. The county manager's office has launched a campaign of misinformation and down right lies. The response to these accusations at the county board meeting was a reference to Title III of the ADA. Not only does title III not include the quote given. Title III does not even apply to State and Local governments. That is title II(which is actually more strict) which makes specific exceptions for buildings like Gulf Branch.

    The 900k quoted as needed repairs include making the center fully accessable. A good plan, but not when we do not have the $!!

    Dan Carroll

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