Seeking public comment, county officials get an earful on parks plan
About 50 people turned out Thursday night at a Washington County Fairgrounds exhibit hall to voice opinions about the future of Washington County’s two largest parks, but John DeBord of South Strabane Township said he’s concerned about public safety issues related to drilling in the Marcellus Shale beneath the parks.
“The distance needed to insure public safety during Chevron’s Lanco Well fire and chemicals polluting the water supply near Charleston, W.Va., should be all we need to heighten our concerns of risks related to gas wells and toxic chemicals,” DeBord told the gathering.
At the Lanco Well conflagration last month in Dunkard Township, Greene County, one worker was killed and another injured.
There are active wells in both Cross Creek and Mingo Creek parks, although the Mingo wells, tapping privately retained mineral rights, predate the county’s formation of the park in the 1970s. The county is seeking proposals from energy companies to sink wells beneath land it owns at Mingo.
DeBord also questioned the role of GAI Consultants as the firm preparing the parks’ strategic plan when its website says, “GAI is dedicated to helping clients establish pipeline corridors, well sites, compressor station sites, access roads for natural gas gathering, storage and transmission.”
The county is paying GAI’s $126,000 contract from oil and gas revenues generated at Cross Creek park.
Dave Gilmore, landscape architecture group manager for GAI Consultants, called the firm a large one that “certainly does work for the oil and gas industry.”
But he said the firm has separate units, one dealing with energy, another handling transportation projects and a third that does community development, which includes landscape architecture and planning.
“As far as having any kind of influence, trust me, that just doesn’t exist,” Gilmore said. “We’re not involved in that kind of work. I can assure you there’s no influence there. We design parks.”
Lisa Cessna, director of Washington County Planning Commission, said gas wells in Cross Creek park generated $10 million for the county, half of which is designated for parks and half for the general fund.
“Mingo gets everything, and Cross Creek gets nothing. That’s the way it’s always been,” said Nancy Spahr of Avella, a Hopewell Townhsip resident.
Corey McConn, Avella School Board president, came to the meeting armed with a copy of the county’s previous comprehensive plan for Cross Creek park, written in 2000.
He went through a list of objectives that were not implemented, such as a children’s fishing pond, a covered bridge, nature center, trail system with trail head and a landscaped park entrance sign.
“It’s nice that they’re going through it again,” said McConn, who’s especially irked by the lack of a nature center that would further environmental education.
“There’s a playground, but no nature center,” he noted. “It’s right next to a school. They’ve made promises, but they’ve yet to follow through. They are making slow progress, definitely not $10 million worth.”
After an introductory session, the organizers asked people to meet in small groups so attendees could discuss their specific agendas.
Roger Shumaker of Washington, a member of the Mountain Valley Trail Riders for more than 18 years, said his group meets at least twice a year for trail rides at Mingo and schedules at least one judged trail ride and horse camping event annually.
Judged trail rides, which may have between 70 and 90 participants, include 10 obstacles on a six-mile trail that both horse and rider must overcome, such as walking on a king-sized mattress, maneuvering a see-saw or grabbing an object from a bucket in a tree and depositing it at another site. Mountain Valley Trail Riders schedules its event during the first weekend in October.
Members of his group have found shortcomings in Mingo Park that they’d like to see remedied, Shumaker said, such as the addition of a restroom and pavilion at the large parking lot in the west end of the park. The lot at the east end of the park becomes a quagmire on rainy days, so he’d like to see improvements that would keep 20- to 40-foot horse trailers from becoming stuck. They’d also like to see trails marked every half mile.
“I was in the military, so I can figure out where I am and read a map,” Shumaker said. Someone without those skills who finds himself with a horse down can call in a location to give an emergency responder an idea of where an accident occurred.
He’d also like to see wider trails that would allow sunshine to dry the surfaces and a permanent area for horse camping.
Mike Johnson of Paris, Hanover Township, owner of two Arabians, said he’d like to go horseback riding at Cross Creek park. “We could cut our own trails,” he said. “We do that down at Mingo with chainsaws.”
Cessna said horseback riding is not permitted at Cross Creek park because of “an ordinance enacted before my time. There are no designated trails right now. I imagine that’s part of the reason.”
For those who were unable to attend the gathering Thursday night at the fairgrounds, GAI Consultants has added pages to the county website with information about the parks and ways to participate online. The web address is wacountyparksplan.com.
Those who would like to weigh in via Twitter can tweet to PAWashingtonCo, and the county also displays a Facebook page with 95 “Likes” where the county’s Facebook friends can presumably weigh in. The county hopes to hammer out its plans for the parks by this fall.