Chincoteague Refuge Eyes Planning
The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the Virginia coast has been awarded $1.5 million in federal funds to purchase part of the Maddox Family Campground — one of 58 projects awarded nearly $41 million, Delmarva Now reported.
The land is to be used as parking for refuge visitors in emergency situations, such as when Hurricane Irene washed away beach parking spaces just before Labor Day weekend last year, according to a press release from the refuge. The project is described on a Federal Transit Administration listing as "a park-and-ride facility to keep vehicles away from the vulnerable beachfront."
It is not yet known how much of the 65-acre property, assessed at over $7 million, the refuge will buy, Visitor Services Manager Michael Dixon said, adding, "Nobody expected anything like this to happen so soon." Refuge officials applied for the grant four or five months ago, he said.
The money comes from the USDOT Federal Transit Administration's Paul S. Sarbanes Transit in Parks Program, which also recently funded a bicycle trail to the refuge from the traffic circle near the Maddox property. The program was established to address traffic congestion in and around national parks, wildlife refuges and other federal lands. More than 1.4 million people a year visit the Chincoteague refuge.
A marshy area between the refuge and the McDonald's restaurant on Maddox Boulevard also could be targeted for improvements under the grant, Dixon said.
"This is a major investment to enhance access and tourism at Chincoteague," Refuge Manager Lou Hinds said in the release, adding, "This grant will help us to work with the community to preserve public access to Assateague Island, to the recreational beach, and to the natural resources we all love."
The release said the area will not replace current parking at the Assateague beach and the award will not influence the outcome of the comprehensive conservation plan now being developed for the refuge. "This is not to be perceived as pre-decisional. This is us operating under the current master plan," Dixon said.
But U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell and local officials said the award affects the planning process and the news came as a surprise — they were not notified funds were being sought to purchase the land and knew nothing about the grant application until they were notified Tuesday of the award.
"The CNWR's move to purchase land and develop a park-and-ride with the ultimate intent to keep vehicles away from the beach is premature and contradictory to their claims of an open decision process involving local and economic interests," Rigell said.
Rigell said in a letter to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe, "In my view this grant lends credibility to the town's fears that refuge managers have already decided on their plan and that the public process is nothing more than a pro forma exercise with a foregone conclusion."
Chincoteague Mayor Jack Tarr and Accomack County Supervisor Wanda Thornton, who represents Chincoteague, also reacted negatively.
"We were totally surprised … We were kind of taken aback that we were not told of this beforehand," Tarr said.
The town is opposed to the refuge acquiring property on Chincoteague for off-site beach parking and officials have told Hinds so several times during discussion of the master plan, Tarr said, adding, "We thought we were in the CCP process and getting to make comment … This is kind of telling us that we don't."
"Mr. Hinds told the community that they would not purchase the land at Maddox campground for a shuttle system if the community was against it," Thornton said, adding, "We are working on the CCP plan — he assured us two weeks ago that there would be 961 parking spaces (at the beach) no matter what happened…No one has asked for more than 961."
Thornton said the town already provides adequate emergency parking for the refuge, citing spaces at the community center, the town office complex and the school, among other available areas.
The plan to purchase the land "is a true indicator" of refuge officials' intentions, Thornton said, adding Hinds "should just tell the community the facts … In my opinion he has misled the community."
Dixon said the process of acquiring the property has to go through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service realty department and it is yet to be determined what portion will be purchased or how many parking spaces could result. Campground operations for the upcoming season will not be affected, he said.
"The Maddox family is certainly excited. They're willing to work with us," Deputy Refuge Manager Kim Halpin said.