Thursday, November 29, 2007

Washington Post covers Strategic Plan

[The following come directly from the Washington Post, 11/29/07]

Park Authority Looks to Maintain High Ratings
5-Year Strategic Plan Takes Its Lead From Survey of N.Va. Residents

By Kirstin DowneyWashington Post Staff WriterThursday, November 29, 2007; VA03

Northern Virginians love their parks, and a five-year strategic plan being proposed by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority aims to keep it that way.

In a new survey of area residents, four-fifths rated the quality of their local parks as excellent or good. They like the programs offered by the park agencies even more, with about 90 percent of residents giving the park authority high marks for the wide array of activities at the parks, such as fitness classes, golf lessons, tennis leagues and youth activities.

It's not surprising that residents are pleased. The park authority, the largest regional park agency in the state, encompasses 21 kinds of parks, more than 100 miles of trails and more than 10,000 acres of land.

Its sites include a water-powered grist mill in Aldie, an aquatics play complex at Algonkian Regional Park in Sterling, a Civil War battlefield at Ball's Bluff, a boating marina in Lorton, a wave park at Alexandria's Cameron Run Regional Park, a golf course in Ashburn and even a cornfield maze in Leesburg.

But many challenges lie ahead for park officials in an area with more than 1.6 million residents, many with widely varied ideas of what makes a day in the park fun and worthwhile. The debate over dog parks vs. playgrounds is just one illustration of the ways opinions can vary. Finite resources, however, require that the park authority make choices about what to do next.

For that reason, the park authority commissioned an evaluation of park programs by local elected officials and park enthusiasts. It surveyed 2,500 residents and got full responses from 900 of them.

"The creation of a plan like this is almost as important as the end product, since through the process, people are challenged to think beyond the needs of today and envision what could be in the future," said Paul Gilbert, the agency's executive director.

First: What do people like best? The authority found that paved walking and biking trails are the most important park feature for residents, with 71 percent declaring them a personal favorite, followed closely by small community parks, which 69 percent singled out. The most popular activities are adult fitness and local history programs.

About 59 percent of respondents said they support purchasing land to preserve open space. Consequently, in the next five years, the park authority intends to buy more land, particularly sites requiring watershed or habitat protection or places with valuable historic resources. It also will expand facilities in places it owns that include those features. Specifically, under the plan, the park authority seeks to buy three such properties within five years and add five trail segments to the hiking and biking system.

The park group also plans to increase its interaction with schools by creating interpretative activities tied to the Virginia Standards of Learning requirements, helping to boost student achievement. The authority plans to establish five SOL-based programs at parks within five years.

The agency also intends to put in place new administrative and accounting procedures to improve efficiency.

A public hearing on the plan will be at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 20 at park authority headquarters at 5400 Ox Road in Fairfax Station. A debate over which projects get priority might be in the offing, because of the many differences of opinion among park-goers.

About 80 percent of Fairfax County residents said they had visited a park within the past year; 66 percent of Alexandria residents said they had. Fairfax City residents were happiest with the programs they were offered; half of those residents called the programs "excellent."

About 30 percent of Loudoun County residents said they felt they needed campgrounds, compared with 14 percent of Falls Church residents. Similarly, youth-oriented programs were more popular in Loudoun County than in Falls Church.