Gift horse: Park plans recall 1930s ouster
"My mother said one of the saddest days of her life was when they loaded them out of here," says Keith Ford, referring to the many mountain families who were forced off their land in the 1930s to make way for Skyline Drive and the Shenandoah National Park. Now, Ford perceives another threat to the way of life out on in his neck of the woods: hikers, bikers, and horseback riders.
The northernmost parts of Albemarle County are worlds away from the urban ring. And while county officials talk glowingly about a new 600-acre wonderland of nature and recreation, some of those who will live near the new Patricia Ann Byrom Forest Preserve feel invaded.
"We have lived here in harmony our whole life," says Keith Ford. "Are we going to wake up in the morning and find people peeking over our fence?"
When you live 13 miles past Crozet, up Route 810 between Brown's Cove and Boonesville, residents expect a little privacy along with the lack of cell phone coverage. They say that hunting is no big deal– unless it's poachers on your land. Yet, as the county moves forward to develop what will be its largest park, urban and rural worlds could collide.
Robert M. Byrom says he and his wife, longtime Crozet school teacher Patricia Ann Byrom, purchased an 817-acre tract in 1964 while he was in the Air Force, and when he retired in 1975, the Byroms moved they family to what they called Cottonwood Farm.
"Pat and I were both romantic about living in the Blue Ridge Mountains and on a farm," recalls Byrom, who now lives in Harrisonburg.
Four parcels remain among the children, and one son, Jim, has plans to build a small horse operation on land that's not part of the donation, and that has Joe Ford, son of Keith Ford, perturbed.
"He's working a deal for private access to run a horse-riding operation," complains Joe Ford, who notes that park plans include 65 parking spaces– more than any other county park– including room for horse trailers.
Byrom "is not going to be running a commercial horse operation on county property," declares Bob Crickenberger, parks and rec deputy director. The park will be one of only two that can accommodate horseback riding– Preddy Creek is the other– and citizens can bring their horse trailers to the park.
"We own nine good mules," says Keith Ford. "Why can't I ride my mules?" Good news: mule riding is allowed, says the county.
Traffic on the narrow, two-lane road is another concern, and access is one of the reasons that opening has been delayed since the original donation in 2004. VDOT nixed the original entrance, and it wasn't until Jim Byrom sold a piece of land for safe egress that the park could move forward.
"This was a gift horse, because it's difficult to get to," concedes the county's outdoor recreation supervisor, Dan Mahon. "But this is their park, too," he says, referring to the neighbors. "In growth areas, they're grateful we're preserving these areas. Out here, it's different."
"I'd rather have a park than a subdivision," acknowledges Joe Ford, who is a bowhunter. "But if it's open to hunters, I'm going to fight."
A group called the Big 8 Hunting Club has leased much of the Byrom property for many years and earns praise from the Byrom family and the county for its maintenance of the property– although some residents are less effusive in complimenting the hunters. Since the Byroms donated the land, the hunt club has a year-to-year lease.
Keith Ford foresees the creation of a monster if the hunt club is allowed use of the park and given a key once a locked gate is installed. "If you have hunting here, we'll never work with you," he tells county officials. "We'll be your enemy."
Hunting is not permitted in Albemarle County parks.
Parks and rec officials, in a May 27 meeting on the site with adjoining property owners, stress that the preserve, whose development cost is estimated at just $300,000, will remain primitive. And GPS will be used to keep trails away from property lines.
While residents express concerns about crowds and refuse found at the city-owned Sugar Hollow Reservoir in White Hall– which is not maintained as a park– county officials believe that the Byrom preserve will be different. Farther out, it will be maintained and will have a locked gate at night, so they contend that it won't draw as much garbage and crowds.
Which is good, because Keith Ford declares, "We're not going to pick up trash anymore."
Plans are for the Byrom preserve to open spring 2010.
Updated June 9.