In 1995, Virginia’s Widewater Peninsula, on the Potomac River 40 miles south of Washington, D.C., was rezoned for a 700-unit residential development, a marina, a golf course, and a hotel/conference center. But local conservationists, peninsula residents, and county supervisors concerned about dwindling open space in the region had a different vision, and earlier this year the Virginia Chapter's Rappahannock Group won a 5-year campaign to establish 1,100 acres of the peninsula as Widewater State Park.
“Widewater is the perfect example of a Sierra Club group working with local elected leaders to win a local conservation campaign,” says Rappahannock Group leader Doris Whitfield. The group spent years building community support for the park, cultivating relationships with local decision-makers, and networking with partner organizations, particularly the Trust for Public Land (TPL).
At the time the peninsula was rezoned, it was owned by energy giant Dominion Resources. But the notion of developing the still-mostly-green peninsula prompted public opposition from the get-go, and Dominion itself was less than enthusiastic about investing in the sewer lines and other infrastructure necessary for development.
“Ultimately, it was Dominion’s decision to bail out of the development pact,” Whitfield says. “But without the Sierra Club galvanizing local support for the park and helping TPL hang tough, the park might never have become a reality.”
The Rappahannock Group began actively promoting the notion of a Widewater State Park in 2001. “A local group, Voters to Stop Sprawl, originally got us involved with the Stafford County Board of Supervisors,” Whitfield says. “The supervisor whose district includes the peninsula supported the park idea, and it was actually the supervisors who asked us to take the lead on this.”
The supervisors informed Whitfield that Dominion was interested in selling the property and asked her to set up a meeting of all the stakeholders. In 2002, TPL signed an option with Dominion to purchase the 1,100 acres, and held on to that right even as the real estate market boomed and development pressures in the area intensified.
“Developers were waiting in the wings if this deal didn’t go through,” says Debi Osborne, TPL’s project manager on Widewater. “The fact that more than 1,000 acres of waterfront property were available for conservation during this era of rampant development is practically unheard of.”
In 2004, developers mounted a legal challenge, demanding that Dominion build the infrastructure promised in 1995. “They were determined to develop this property with whatever means possible,” says Whitfield. But in 2005 the Virginia Supreme Court rejected the developers’ appeal, and in one of his final acts in office, Governor Mark Warner signed the deed for Widewater State Park in January 2006.
“Having a willing seller, getting in early on the efforts to buy, and building a base of community support were the keys to our success,” Whitfield says. “Debi understood what was needed and pursued the deal quietly but firmly with Dominion. Basically, the Sierra Club initiated and facilitated the deal, and TPL got the money and made it happen. And in the end, we were able to help preserve this vulnerable piece of property in one of the three fastest-growing counties in Virginia.”
Peninsula Park: The Rappahannock Group in Virginia wins a 5-year campaign to establish Widewater State Park, above, on a 1,100-acre peninsula on the Potomac River that had been targeted for hundreds of condos and a resort/conference center. [photo by Jeff Simms, Trust for Public Land]