Dept. of Parks and Recreation Doesn’t Follow the Same Environmental Standards as Homeowners

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Arlington County must set a responsible example by holding itself to the same (or more stringent) environmental standards as Arlington homeowners in order to reduce stormwater runoff and lower flood risk.

Instead, the Department of and Recreation is avoiding review, documentation and restrictions for its “Paving over our ” projects.

The July 8th flooding was not unexpected. Arlington County is paving over green and open spaces at a rapid rate (adding +/–29 acres every 3 to 4 years, equivalent to Pentagon’s footprint). And Arlington’s Department of Parks and Recreation () is one of the primary offenders.

Whereas development on private land requires permits and a review that includes documentation of impervious surfaces,

  1. DPR exempts many of its own projects from environmental impact analysis.
  2. DPR fails to disclose how much it is increasing impervious surfaces areas in our public spaces.
  3. DPR also often avoids following the same policies and processes (e.g., reviews by the relevant public commissions), without urging, that other public projects (including schools) follow.

This summer from a former and Energy Conservation Commission (E2C2) member highlighted DPR’s failure to properly document its projects via the county’s Environmental Assessment (EA) .

“DPR typically argues that park projects are exempt from EA requirements because they constitute “ordinary maintenance activities” outside the scope of Regulation 4.4. Although such a reading stretches the regulatory language beyond all reason, DPR continue[s] to resist E2C2’s efforts to encourage EA development and review for park projects. https://bluevirginia.us/2019/05/environmental-assessments-arlingtons-little-known-and-poorly-understood-planning-tool

Paving Arlington’s Parks, the DPR Way

DPR has over 80 park and trail “renovation” and “improvement” projects on its Projects & Planning page. Few, if any, of these projects will undergo a public environmental assessment and review even though many lie in or near a floodplain or flood-prone area and contain Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act resource protection areas (RPAs), as identified and defined by county government.

RPAs are entitled to special protections and review under the EA policy. EAs cannot be exempt when work is being done “on land subject to flooding or standing water (section 33e).”

Unfortunately not only are the RPAs not receiving the review that they are entitled to under Arlington’s own policy requirements, DPR goes even further to make drastic and even more negative impacts in RPAs by cutting down a significant number of mature trees and increasing the impervious surfaces in these areas without submitting its proposals to a thorough, public environmental review. These land-use changes may actually increase stormwater-runoff volume and speed, which can worsen erosion and escalate the risk of flooding.

2017 photos document the stormwater impacts of a “maintenance” project in Virginia Highlands Park

Under Arlington County Administrative Regulation 4.4, an Environmental Assessment is required when, among other things, a project adds 5,000+ square feet of impervious surface. No project can be exempt from the EA requirement if it includes any impact “on land subject to flooding or standing water.”

But that’s not the whole picture.

Not only is DPR refusing to conduct EAs on its projects, it also refuses to document the environmental impacts of DPR projects, which must comply with the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Ordinance — including stormwater runoff provisions.

Furthermore, DPR uses maintenance capital to fund these changes — funds that are restricted from being used for projects that expand the footprint or budgetary impact of existing facilities.

At the end of the day, Arlington County fails to meet the same conditions and constraints that it requires of homeowners when they are making changes to private property, which includes documenting various site alterations https://building.arlingtonva.us/codes-ordinances/chesapeake-bay/, which includes site disturbance and increasing the square footage of impervious surfaces.

Maintenance Capital Funding, Chesapeake Bay Regulations, Environmental Assessment

“Maintenance Capital (MC) is a broad program that seeks to achieve a long-stated goal to ‘maintain what we have.’ … MC is designed to fund programs that consist of non-expansion projects. Non-expansion projects are those that do not change a footprint of a building, expand a current asset, provide resources for services not already being undertaken, or increase the operating budget once complete.” https://arlingtonva.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/18/2018/05/C.-Revised_General-Government.pdf

Therefore, a maintenance-capital funded project like almost all the projects DPR is doing is restricted by definition from expansion.

But because they use these “maintenance funds” and ignore the rules to not expand projects when using “maintenance” funds, DPR states that they are categorically exempt from the requirements of review and documentation.

Below, a county staff member confirms this interpretation of the rules in a 2017 email:

“An Environmental Assessment was not completed for the recent Capital Maintenance Project that renovated the courts and gardens. Capital maintenance replacement projects are either exempted or categorically excluded from Environmental Assessments according to Arlington County Admin Regulation 4.4.” —Christopher Willett <cwillett@arlingtonva.us> Fri, 28 Apr 2017 13:05:13

2010–2017 images documenting the expansion of facility footprints (and budgetary impact) for maintenance capital projects in Virginia Highlands Park

In Summary

DPR’s maintenance capital projects have

  • Created significant land disturbance and reduced mature tree canopy,
  • Added substantial impervious surfaces in parks and open spaces,
  • Expanded facilities and infrastructure (which requires additional budgetary support)
  • Prolonged the disturbance of park and recreational facilities—limiting access/use,
  • Increased stormwater runoff (requiring expensive mitigation that otherwise could have been avoided), and
  • Allocated maintenance funding for non-maintenance projects.

It appears that DPR is exempting its projects from the normal environmental assessment and review processes and requirements that otherwise apply to most or all other public and private development projects.

DPR’s activities include:

  • Inadequate publicly available documentation of environmentally significant alterations to public parkland and open space (including changes normally covered under Chesapeake Bay regulation/ordinance)
  • Exemption from Administrative Regulation 4.4 Environmental Assessment
  • Lack of review and oversight by Arlington County Commissions (Park & Recreation, E2C2, Urban Forestry, etc.)
  • Misapplication of the definition of “maintenance” that applies to the use of maintenance capital funds

DPR should be held to the same standards as homeowners, the school system and others.

Arlington County DPR should submit its plans for review by the relevant public commissions and bodies. As well as, provide publicly accessible documentation that catalogues the amount of any increase in impervious and semi-impervious surfaces, the amount of land disturbance, the loss of mature trees (those with diameter at breast height of 3 inches or more) and any other environmentally significant environmental impacts for each project DPR constructs public land.

One reason DPR gives for their “Paving over our parks” projects as a “maintenance” project which they state is “categorically exempt” from any review is that DPR wants to apply ADA standards to its park systems therefore these major changes are necessary. And of course that’s not entirely accurate either. More to come on that.

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