Manassas Journal Messenger | Preservation meets controversy

Efforts to preserve the approximately 300-acre Merrimac Farm have been met with controversy.

After widespread debate, a Prince William Board of County Supervisors vote and a declined state grant application to save the land, those involved want to set the story straight.

the story

Merrimac Farm, located southeast of Nokesville and near Quantico Marine Corps base, was owned by the late Col. Dean McDowell, who had used his property has a hunting preserve until he died in 2000.

McDowell had designated his property in the Agricultural and Forestal District, which limited its use to farming and allowed him to defer property taxes.

Wachovia Bank, trustee for the McDowell Marital trust, applied for early removal from the district earlier this year, which would open up the property for development and would also let McDowell’s widow, who now lives in North Carolina, benefit from the trust money.

After the designation was lifted, the county’s market value assessment for all four parcels of the property was more than $3 million.

In efforts to both preserve the farm and give Mrs. McDowell access to the trust money, the Prince William Conservation Alliance applied for a $2 million state grant in September, which was denied Dec. 1.

The PWCA had planned to convert the site to a preservation center, which would also help protect the Occoquan Reservoir and Cedar Run.

The Quantico Marine Corps base had partnered with the PWCA to preserve the farm, and the Department of Defense had named this project its No. 1 priority of its Encroachment Partnering program this year.

the problems

Board Chairman Sean T. Connaughton, R-at large, said he thought supervisors had not received adequate information about preservation efforts prior to the board hearing Oct. 18 for the early removal.

“I don’t understand how [preservation efforts] went on for two years and the county was never informed,” Connaughton said in his statement on why he voted against the application.

He also sent letters to Quantico and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries in late September requesting information about preservation efforts.

Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan, R-Dumfries, said she thought Connaughton should have consulted with the entire board before sending letters regarding an issue “of that magnitude.”

Supervisor Corey A. Stewart, R-Occoquan, agreed.

“[Connaughton] never consulted the rest of the board,” Stewart said. “There were certain implications that he was acting on behalf of the board.”

However, Connaughton pointed out that other supervisors had written letters supporting preservation efforts without coming before the board, as well.

five years left

Connaughton said he thought the five years the property had left in the district “would have given us a lot of time to find solutions [and work with the trustee and family].”

He also questioned motives of “parties involved” with the conservation efforts.

“I do not know what the ultimate sales agreement or trustee arrangements were, but apparently some parties were going to make a good deal of money with the price inflated at the expense of taxpayers,” he said.

He declined to name individual parties to which he was referring.

However, Kim Hosen, executive director of the PWCA and county planning commissioner, noted that “no individuals would have benefited financially” from the farm’s acquisition.

In fact, she said, “the intent was always to have [the property] managed by the [VDGIF].”

“They’re the best managers of land,” she said.

Hosen also pointed out that under Virginia State Code title 15.2-4314 section D, when Col. McDowell died, “any heir at law … shall, as a matter of right, be entitled to withdraw such land from such district,” which entitled Mrs. McDowell to the early removal.

lessons learned

The board passed a resolution Dec. 6 in support of preserving the farm, which Caddigan said will go down to Richmond.

Caddigan said she thinks much of this debate could have been avoided if supervisors had held a closed session to discuss the matter before the vote.

She also said fellow board members who wrote letters of support probably should have notified the rest of the board just as Connaughton should have, “but two wrongs don’t make a right.”

“I think this is a lesson for everybody,” she said. “I think for procedural purposes, we know better.”

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