Albemarle County officials have accepted a 410-acre land gift they initially rejected, approving a plan to partner with a local nonprofit that will maintain the new southern Albemarle park as a nature preserve and a site to release rehabilitated wildlife.
“We’re very, very pleased that the land will be secure under a government agency,” said Jose Lambert, who initially approached the county this summer along with his partner, Montgomery Bird Woods, to offer Arrowhead Farm, long owned by Woods’ family. The couple is still amazed that the deal required six months of wheedling and an ultimatum from them. “I can’t believe it took us putting our foot down and saying, ‘You have until December.’”
County elected officials repeatedly said their reluctance to accept the gift had nothing to do with a lack of interest in the land, merely with concerns about having enough resources to do right by it. With other park projects pending—including a second phase of Preddy Creek Park and another 400-acre tract south of the Ragged Mountain Reservoir soon to be donated by the Nature Conservancy—the underfunded county parks department wouldn’t be able to handle the extra capacity, county supervisors and staff said two months ago.
Frustrated, Lambert and Woods started looking for other options. They found one in the Rockfish Wildlife Sanctuary, a nonprofit animal rehabilitation center in Nelson County.
The 9-year-old organization, which cares for 500 to 750 injured and orphaned wild animals a year, had outgrown its home in Schuyler and was already building a new headquarters. But Beverley Butler, president of the sanctuary’s board, said the organization was still looking for a location to hold regular educational programs. When she heard about the rejected land gift, she called Lambert and Woods to float the idea of Rockfish managing the property.
“I thought, ‘What is there to lose?’” she said.
Woods and Lambert were interested, and when supervisors met again on the issue in November with a final offer of the land set to expire in a month, they put a new option on the table: a public-private partnership with Rockfish or another worthy nonprofit willing to step up as steward of a park the county couldn’t afford to care for yet.
It’s not an unprecedented arrangement in Virginia. In 1999, the Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve was created in Loudoun County with the help of a private volunteer organization. Closer to home, the Ivy Creek Natural Area is jointly owned by Charlottesville and Albemarle, but managed by the Ivy Creek Foundation.
The agreement county staff worked out with Rockfish for William Woods Park will be a little different, simply because Rockfish’s leaders have made it clear the organization can’t support the park financially—just with labor. Volunteers will monitor the area and help maintain trails in addition to releasing animals and offering tours to groups that want to visit, and Butler said Rockfish eventually wants to build an education center on the property. Other organizations have also expressed interest in joining the partnership. But Bob Crickenberger, director of county parks, told supervisors at a meeting last week the county will still shoulder about $6,500 a year in operating costs.
For Butler, whose organization is now hammering out the details of the partnership with the county, it’s a win-win: room to grow, and much-needed exposure at a time when Rockfish is seeking more public support. And despite some concerns about keeping unauthorized visitors away, the deal was sweet enough to convince those who had originally said no.
“This is a new day for parks,” said Board of Supervisors Chair Ann Mallek.