There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Clashes between environmentalists and developers are usually dull fights between earnest outsiders and greedy companies. But in an Alexandria battle over a proposed apartment complex, the two groups work for the same family.
The Winklers, a prominent local development clan, have protected the Winkler Botanical Preserve since the late 1970s, when Mark Winkler’s widow, Catherine, and their daughter Tori set aside the land, located a stone’s throw from I-395 in Alexandria. The Wink-lers fund a small nonprofit corporation to study and maintain the preserve.
But recently the preserve staff members, most of them scientists, have complained—first to their company sponsors, then to environmentalists, and now to just about anyone—that the company’s plans to develop an area near the preserve will harm the preserve itself. In retaliation, the staffers say, company officials and preserve executive director Bob Adams threatened to fire them if they continued to speak publicly about their opposition, even at city hearings. Two of the staff members, director John Walsh and plant ecologist Rod Simmons, resigned late last week.
Relations between the company and the staff have grown downright nasty. Last week, after environmentalist Andrew H. Macdonald turned up internal company documents showing negative effects of development, company officials accused the staff of leaking the documents, staff members say. “They crucified us,” one staffer said last week. “When they bring a lawyer in with us to our staff meeting and grill us for two hours—‘Where did that document come from?!’—it’s not easy to listen to that.”
When asked whether he threatened the staffers, Adams wouldn’t comment. Company CEO Randal B. Kell denies that anyone intimidated the staffers, and he says they were free to speak all along. Kell says he specifically asked Walsh to speak at a city council hearing, and Walsh declined. As for the documents, Kell says he’s not sure how Macdonald acquired them. “But they are not public domain, and we want them back,” he says.
Macdonald, a Johns Hopkins University instructor and member of the city’s Environmental Policy Commission, helped start an advocacy group, the Friends of the Winkler Botanical Preserve Forest, to protest the apartments.
The $25-million development would be nestled in a western corner of a 100-acre forest containing the preserve. The development would cover only 13 acres in the forest and wouldn’t touch the 43 acres set aside for the preserve. But the preserve staffers, Macdonald, and the Friends argue that construction will kill plants and chase away red foxes and other wildlife living in the preserve. They also say the surrounding forest has unique ecological value.
“We’re not asking for no development, just a more sensitive plan,” a staffer said last week. “Paving everything up to the [preserve’s boundary] will just isolate it and damage its ecosystem….If you’re going to have a preserve, you should protect it a little better.”
Of course, the Winklers never expected the preserve—which amounts to a $20-million gift of ripe development land—to generate controversy. Years ago, they could have bulldozed it all. The nonprofit preserve was supposed to be a natural haven, a remembrance of Mark Winkler, and a tidy tax break.
But the company finds itself in a squabble with those who hope all the land, and not just the preserve, can remain unblemished.
“The truly special features are not in the preserve,” a staff member said. “They’re in these outlying areas that are getting developed.” Those special features include terraces and gentle slopes that in most cities would have been cleared for buildings or open parks. But over 15 years, the preserve staff has restored these mostly flat areas—along with the uneven streambed land at the heart of the preserve—as a “native-growth” forest, or one that contains only flora indigenous to Northern Virginia. “So many arboretums and gardens just want to display plants,” a staffer said. “The preserve pretty much looks as it would have without human intervention.”
Urban parks and gardens are common, but indigenous forests are unusual in tightly packed regions such as Alexandria. Officials at the Nature Conservancy, which protects 8 million acres across the country, say that only 5 percent of their 1,500 preserves are in urban areas.
Macdonald says the terraces and slopes slated for development contain water “seeps” that gradually percolate into the preserve, creating special plant life that would be decimated by the change. He estimates that as many as 100 species of plants and trees would be destroyed. (The preserve harbors about 600 floral species altogether, including red oak and black huckleberry.) “If you want to protect the natural character of this place, you can’t build where they want to build now,” Macdonald says.
That’s nonsense, says Kell, explaining that the company’s preliminary site work shows “there are no seeps.” He acknowledges that plants and trees would be destroyed, but he says all but three species exist in the preserve itself and would be safeguarded. “And those [three] are common, common plants found in any wooded land,” he says.
Kell doesn’t deny that the preserve itself may change. “I’d never say that there would be no effect,” he says. “But [Macdonald is] talking about it being destroyed. No. It’s always going to be…heavily managed.” Indeed, Kell pooh-poohs the “unique” nature of the preserve, saying the company has poured between $5 million and $10 million into the preserve over the years to clean it, cultivate 50,000 new plants, and beautify it. “This idea that it’s some pristine, naturally occurring forest is wrong,” he says. Part of the site was once a dump.
The Winkler preserve fight is one of the last traditional Northern Virginia development struggles. For years, environmentalists sought to protect rich tracts in Alexandria, as well as in Fairfax and Arlington counties. They won some disputes. They lost most. Today the land is quilted with office buildings, high-rise apartments, and malls. In the development endgame, most of the conflicts are over what to do with already degraded areas such as Potomac Yard, the barren site where Jack Kent Cooke once planned a Redskins stadium.
Ironically, the Winklers always enjoyed a pro-environment reputation, and the company—among the four largest development firms in Northern Virginia—donates heavily to Democrats. Towering over the preserve is the company headquarters, which sits on a tasteful green landscape that includes a storm-water pond where ducks splash and swim.
The Winklers’ good corporate citizenship has won them influential friends. Mayor Kerry Donley (D), elected last week, has already written to Macdonald saying the city won’t further mull the development. Last year, the proposed apartments glided through planning commission and city council hearings on unanimous votes.
Macdonald and the preserve staffers charge that the city overlooked its own development plan in rubber-stamping the apartments. The city’s 1992 plan states that “the natural topographic features of the site should be preserved and development should be focused on the relatively flat plateau areas….” But the company plans to excavate tons of gravel from the 13-acre site in order to level it, and dump the gravel onto adjacent forest land.
Kell says all the land being used has long been slated for development. He emphasizes that none of the land is within the preserve. But Kell can’t say for sure what the preserve’s boundaries are, and city officials acknowledge that they haven’t asked the company to precisely define the 43 acres.
A 1977 company report indicates that certain areas now planned for the apartment complex are “areas where development will have greater risk of negative environmental impact.” While the company has always planned to develop the terraces, the apartments stretch farther down the slopes than company maps, drawn during the ’70s and ’80s, predicted.
“Look, there’s lots of things that have happened over the years” to change the situation, Kell says, and using two-decade-old reports is unfair. The environmentalists are simply asking too much, he says. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could save the whole [area]? But there’s got to be a balance,” he reasons.
City officials agree. Macdonald may file an appeal with the city, but his appeal will be heard only if the final plan for the development differs from the preliminary plans OK’d by city officials. Kell says the plans are nearly identical. Macdonald may try to organize a land trust to buy the property—an unlikely venture due to the land’s massive cost.
On Monday, Macdonald failed to convince fellow members of the city’s Environmental Policy Commission (EPC) to recommend any delays in the project to the city council. One EPC member says Macdonald wrongly used his EPC title to try to convince residents to oppose the apartments, which Macdonald denies. And Kell says Friends have sent abusive letters to Mark Winkler’s widow, who is in her 80s.
The furor sneaked up on the company, which isn’t used to such attacks. The preserve staffers say they never would have complained to environmentalists in the first place if the company had consulted them earlier and more frequently regarding the development. Relations between the company and the staff have long been sour; according to one former staffer, at least four staffers have been fired in the last decade. “It’s that attitude that they can just willy-nilly shift things that just outrages us,” a staff member said last week. Meanwhile, the company has already marked the site for bulldozers. CP