Boathouse forum slated

(National Park Service photo)

The National Park Service is moving forward with plans for a modern boathouse to support non-motorized-vehicle operations on the Potomac River. But one local organization is urging against too fast a development process.

The Arlington County Civic Federation has sent a message to the Arlington County government: Don’t take the public for granted when moving forward on plans for a Potomac River boathouse.

Civic Federation delegates on June 6 voted 33-1 to recommend the Arlington County Board undertake a robust, broad-based planning process for a site along Lee Highway in Rosslyn before rubber-stamping that space for boathouse uses.

The vote came after County Board members in May had voted 5-0 to sign a programmatic agreement with the National Park Service, designating the Lee Highway parcel as suitable for boathouse operations.

Different advocates have varying interpretations of how important that agreement might prove. Some say it binds the county government to using the parcel (purchased with $2.4 million in taxpayer funds in 2014) for boathouse facilities; others say it simply makes that an option.

Either way, civic leaders were not happy when County Board members initially put the proposal on their “consent agenda” with little advance public notice. Only after fielding complaints did the board opt to hold a public hearing, and county officials bypassed both the Park and Recreation Commission and the Environment and Energy Conservation Commission, which ordinarily would have been offered a chance to review the agreement.

“This is all about process rather than the merits of a boathouse,” Civic Federation president Duke Banks said of the resolution’s intent.

On June 17, the National Park Service announced completion of the mandated environmental assessment and announced – as expected – that the Rosslyn site was its preferred alternative for the 300-foot dock and boathouse facilities.

“We are excited to have reached this point,” said Charles Cuvelier, superintendent of the National Park Service’s George Washington Memorial Parkway.]

Among those who want a more comprehensive planning process for use of that parcel is Civic Federation delegate Suzanne Sundburg.

“As it stands right now, essentially the decision is considered already made,” she said. “We need more public discussion.”

It’s a view that was echoed by Bernie Berne, a longtime activist who said the county government needs to “live up to some promises it made” about public engagement when purchasing the parcel.

Local high schools for decades have sought a local space for their crew programs, rather than having to travel either across the Potomac to Georgetown or down the river to Alexandria (or beyond) for training.

To say the National Park Service never saw the facility as a priority might be an understatement, despite prodding by then-U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8th). Issues related to funding – which is likely to come from a mix of federal, local and private dollars – also have caused delays.

Two years ago, then-County Board Chairman Jay Fisette said reports of the project’s demise were greatly exaggerated.

“It is not a dead issue at all. It has made progress, slow but steady. We’ve worked on it hard,” Fisette said of the effort during the January 2017 “Meet the Chairman” event sponsored by the Leadership Center for Excellence.

(The project, or at least a public phase of it, then went silent again as the environmental analysis was undertaken.)

Why the marriage of the National Park Service and the Arlington County government on this project? Construction of the George Washington Memorial Parkway beginning in the 1930s cut the majority of Arlington off from the Potomac shoreline. When the shore came under control of the National Park Service, federal legislation guaranteed Arlington’s access to the water for traditional (non-motorized) boating.

Supporters say a facility for non-motorized boats could be incorporated into the Rosslyn shoreline without adverse impact. But the Arlington-Alexandria stretch of the waterway has a number of disadvantages, including excessive wind on the Potomac as well as noise from jets at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Arlington’s school system has a long connection to rowing on the Potomac. The Washington-Lee High School boys’ crew team, founded in 1949, became a national powerhouse in the 1950s and ’60s and won the Henley Royal Regatta in the United Kingdom in 1964 and 1969. The squad helped launch other high-school and college crew teams (for boys and girls) across the region.

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