Residents lash out at heritage park

Gainesville residents opposed to a plan to designate their African-American community a heritage park presented their concerns to the Prince William Board of County Supervisors this week, calling it racist and discriminatory.

The plan was forwarded by longtime Gainesville resident Robert Moler, and other concerned Gainesville residents, who say a sector plan offered by a rival government-appointed committee is flawed.

The residents plan, involving the work of the Piedmont Environmental Council and an outside consultant, has received the endorsement of Delegate Bob Marshall, 13th District, and others who praised its efforts to link land use and transportation.

But efforts to place the land of some Gainesville black families in a proposed 350-acre heritage park is causing trouble.

A government-commissioned plan, by contrast, was developed by Gainesville residents appointed to an advisory committee last year. That plan was presented to the planning commission in March and has not yet been approved. Both plans outline future development for the Interstate 66/U.S. 29 corridor in Gainesville for the next decade.

Sponsors of the residents plan say the government advisory proposal envisions too much high-density housing, relies too heavily on cars for mobility and doesnt integrate neighborhoods. It includes no provision for an African-American heritage park.

Although the residents plan has been given only 30 minutes of time before the planning commission at a future date, opponents are already taking their case to the board of supervisors, which will ultimately decide its fate.

The opposition at Tuesdays meeting revolved around the provision in the residents plan to designate an area where many blacks in the west now live as a 350-acre African-American heritage park.

“Sadly, the provisions of the plan in its present form would create a sort of reservation or compound where only the current residents and their descendents could live,” said 89-year old Marie Primas, a Broad Run resident whose family has owned property on Thoroughfare Road in Gainesville since 1945.

The heritage park would encompass Carver Road, Old Carolina Road and U.S. 29, all close-knit and traditionally black neighborhoods.

Residents would become park “indwellers” with perpetual ownership rights who could sell their development rights to others in the future. But the county would retain the right of first refusal if an indweller chose to sell.

Plan sponsors said the provision was designed to preserve the area for future blacks, not to deny them rights. Residents would receive significant tax advantages by living there, and while the county would have the right of first refusal if the property were sold, it would have to match any private offer.

However, those who spoke Tuesday were not satisfied with those provisions.

Primas called the provision “shades of pre-Civil War America.”

Lillian Blackwell of Old Carolina Road said it reminded her of an African game reserve where animals are controlled and only allowed limited freedom.

Other objections revolved around basic rights.

“This plan, if accepted, will cut us out of a basic capitalistic endeavor: land ownership,” said Delores Lucas. “We urge you to oppose any plan … that contains such disenfranchised and colonized approaches to growth.”

By only being allowed to sell off their development rights, not the land itself, African-Americans would be deprived of the fair market value of their property, said pastor Marcus Fields of Oakland Baptist Church. He and resident Addison Lightfoot complained that the residents plan sponsors had not sought African-American input, only holding one community meeting in August to present the plan to the community at large.

For others the plan symbolized a return to a more repressive age. “I was born into this area as a nigger. I became a colored. I became a Negro. I became an African-American. If I leave it to these people, we will be indwellers,” said Pat Lightfoot, a member of the government advisory committee and 30-year resident of Gainesville.

Recalling a time when blacks couldnt own county land without a white persons signature, Lightfoot said a heritage park “would bring us right back down to what we were. Weve been disenfranchised, weve been discriminated against, and weve been oppressed. Every day when I wake up, I would think Im right back where I started from.”

The residents plan won a significant victory recently when the planning commission reversed itself and agreed to let Moler present it to the commission. However, the planning commission has only agreed for the planning staff to formally review the government advisory plan, which means the residents plan will receive limited consideration.

In a letter Oct. 15 to the planning commission, Moler, Gary Friedman, Martha Hendley, Ellen Penar, and several others involved in developing the residents plan asked that the heritage park be omitted from consideration.

Fearing the whole plan may be in jeopardy because of the controversy about the park, they said the focus of the discussion should be on transportation, land use and quality of life. “It is unfortunate that some have chosen to interpret the residents plan in such an unintended and distorted manner,” signers said of the heritage park provision.

They said far from trying to deprive African-Americans of rights, they viewed the government advisory plans failure to recognize the Gainesville African-American heritage “as disregard for its significance.”

The letter was also sent to the board of supervisors.

Brentsville district supervisor Ben Thompson, a Republican who is expected to represent the area when redistricting takes place Jan. 31, said Tuesday he opposes the residents plan. “It smacks of arrogance, elitism and social engineering … its just plain wrong,” he said.

The planning commission is expected to begin reconciling the advisory committee plan with the staffs recommendations in January.

Staff writer Diane Freda can be reached at (703) 878-4723.

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