Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Bald Eagle Vote: Best Choices for Manassas Council

The City of Manassas in Virginia has always prided itself on being a quaint little town with a historic past. But lately it’s lost a lot of that charm. Sure there’s Old Town with the First Fridays, Farmers Markets, and Holiday Parades, but all you have to do is drive twenty seconds north on Centreville Road and the picture dramatically changes.

Excessive Development in the City of Manassas
And within Old Town and for miles in all directions, you will spot many vacant and for-lease office and retail spaces. The signs are everywhere. Yet several of our current council members continually vote for new developments when they can’t even fill what we have. Even worse, these same council men and women are approving developments that will rip out our few remaining green spaces and turn them into what will surely be more unoccupied properties. The City is literally tearing itself up.

Two of those developments are the dual office buildings currently being built across from the NEC building on Gateway Blvd., and one of the largest land developments in the history of Manassas right next to the DMV called the Gateway Project. The City is selling this precious nature reserve, parcel by parcel, to Buchanan Partners to build yet more office buildings, retail shops, and expensive townhouses.

Construction site with bald eagle nest on park edge
What sets these two properties apart from other plots for sale is that over the past several years they’ve become the habitats for a pair of bald eagles and their offspring. A nest currently resides just a few feet from the development across from the NEC building and sits right on the very edge of the adjacent Cannon Branch Fort Park. We’ve witnessed the developers making little effort to protect these birds. They defied a U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) order to not begin clearing and grading until August 1, 2016, and instead started two weeks early. At one point we caught them pumping water and construction contaminants into the city parkland without giving it a second thought.

Though they are no longer listed as endangered species, bald eagles are still protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. This means that any disturbances that result in a variation of their normal nesting patterns could be harmful and would be a violation.

In the past the adult eagles have returned to the nest throughout the day, even after their young have fledged. Now they fly off to the pond behind the DMV as soon as construction begins each morning and don’t come back to the nest until the last worker is gone. Sometimes, they don’t return at all.

The Gateway Project by the Manassas DMV
In addition to the two-story office buildings being erected directly in front of their nest, the Gateway Project is set to destroy their second refuge and a total of forty acres. The pond down the road by the DMV is where the eagles and other wildlife fish and roost during the day. It is also home to many plant and insect species. Once set for development over a decade ago—a project that was abandoned due to the recession—this untouched area has since transformed into a thriving wetland.

There are three incumbents seeking to hold on to their council seats this November: Ian Lovejoy, Mark Wolfe, and Jon Way.

Ian Lovejoy
Ian Lovejoy voted against the Gateway Project when it was offered up for vote on October 19, 2015. He has since stated that such a development would cause undue traffic burden, a possible increase in enrollment in our already overcrowded schools, and “It’s some of the last green space in the city.” We believe Ian is making careful choices for the future good of our community, and that it why he should get your vote.

Mark Wolfe, on the other hand, not only brought the vote to the table and voted to approve the Gateway Project, he also implied that he would financially benefit from the development a week later during a Comcast Newsmakers interview. He did this as well with a Manassas Ballet funding vote years prior in which he and his wife, the ballet’s artistic director, both benefited. He also attended the groundbreaking ceremony in front of the bald eagles’ nest. We strongly believe that Mark Wolfe needs to be removed from council.

Jon Way currently serves as both Vice Mayor and Council, and he also attended the groundbreaking ceremony in front of the eagles’ nest. On his website he states: “Several new, upscale, convenient residential developments, shopping centers and specialty businesses have been created with the active, supportive involvement of City Council, including myself. More are coming.” As you can imagine, we believe he needs to be replaced as well.

There are four new candidates running for Manassas City Council to take the available three seats. We wish incumbent Lovejoy to keep his, and so we asked all four newcomers about their opinions on the Gateway Project and the eagles.

Rex Parr responded: “I'm afraid that my opinion on Gateway won't change anything. That said, after trying to market that property for 20 years or more, I can understand the desire to jumpstart development. I expect the developer to protect those eagles.” We don’t believe Rex is carefully evaluating the future of the City, nor paying that close attention to what has been happening with the eagles.

Pam Sebesky
Pam Sebesky responded that the Gateway Project should have been more transparent, and that the developers (Pruitt Corporation) by the nest should have honored the USFWS recommendations. And “Development will happen, but with good planning and community input it can be done in a smart way that will benefit the most people and have the best outcomes in preserving our environment.” We believe Pam Sebesky would be a good replacement for Mark Wolfe.

Theresa Coates Ellis responded that "This mixed-use project will add more students to our school system and increase traffic.” However, through further correspondence we feel she isn't up to speed with what's been going on at the nest, even though it’s been in the papers and on several news and radio stations.

Michael Youlen
This brings us to a candidate that we believe would best replace Councilman and Vice Mayor Jon Way: Michael Youlen. Within half a day Michael replied to our email request and said, “I think this issue right here certainly contributes to the discussion as to what type of community people want to have. I love Manassas, and I personally do not want to see it become wall-to-wall concrete. We have room at the present moment, commercially and residentially. Unless the businesses or developers are poised to bring in substantial amounts of career-type, good-paying jobs for people, then I would vote no.” Instead of having fundraising parties with the social elite in our community, Michael Youlen is asking that donations for his campaign be made to charities, churches, and civic and/or veteran organizations.

Photo of Bald Eagle Pair by Ann McIntyre
The bald eagle, regardless of its relegation as endangered, threatened, or protected, is still and will remain our National Bird. Many people, including myself, had never seen a bald eagle in the wild until they spotted the pair by the airport. And the only high school within Manassas City limits (just a block away from City Hall), Osbourn High, is Home of the Eagles. It couldn’t be more ironic.

Even if bald eagles aren’t as important to you as they may be to others, certainly stopping the unnecessary overdevelopment of our town and surrounding areas should take priority. We can’t afford to have our representatives jump into land deals just to line their pockets in office. And no more personal favors. We need to preserve what remains of our natural environment soon, or the only greenery left will be those small trees within the medians of cement parking lots.

When you vote on November 8th, consider voting for Independent Michael Youlen, Democrat Pam Sebesky, and Republican Ian Lovejoy to get our town back on the right track. Mayor Hal Parrish, who also attended the groundbreaking ceremony in front of the eagles’ nest, is running unchallenged…but you can always Write In any other name to send him a message about what is more important. We suggest typing “Eagles” for mayor on your ballot.

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