Inside the Taylor Run restoration: Passionate residents collaborate with willing city staff to chart a path forward

Inside the Taylor Run restoration: Passionate residents collaborate with willing city staff to chart a path forward
The walking path through Chinquapin Park, which runs adjacent to the Taylor Run stream. (Photo/Missy Schrott)

By Amy Will  |

Three million dollars slipped through the city’s fingers last week after City Council announced it would rescind two grants backing the Taylor Run and Strawberry Run stream restoration projects.

“The project as we had originally conceived, it is done. My understanding is that there will be a report that’s coming to us in June, which represents some kind of consensus that
has been reached between the community and the Environmental Policy Commission (EPC). And we’re going to have to consider whether we accept that conclusion,” Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson said at the April 11 council legislative meeting.

The consensus the mayor is referring to is a highly anticipated proposal, expected to be presented sometime in May. Alexandria resident and local environmental advocate
Russell Bailey has been deeply engaged in the new plan and no stranger to the controversy of the old.

“The city staff and community group met several times since September, evaluated a number of options and developed a set of consensus recommendations. These recommendations will be included in a report by the Institute of Engagement and Negotiation that will soon be made public,” Bailey said in a statement to the Times.

Details have not been released, but several sources and city officials, including Jesse
Maines, Alexandria’s division chief of stormwater management, describe the plan as a “scaled down” version of the original grant-funded proposal.

What led to a group of advocates, the EPC and city officials joining forces to create an entirely new proposition for stream restoration is a complicated journey – one that involves some strong community voices and a city eventually willing to hear them out.

The grant
At the center of this story is Taylor Run, an area most agree should be protected and preserved. Just how that can be achieved, however, has been the source of a rather contentious debate that goes back to 2019 when the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality awarded the city two grants from the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund for up to $800,000 for Strawberry Run Stream Restoration and $2,255,000 for Taylor Run.

According to a previous Times report, the grant program was initiated by the state to help the city meet its Chesapeake Bay pollution reduction requirements.

Rod Simmons, a natural resource manager and plant ecologist with the city’s Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities has been operating separately from his government job as a citizen advocate for years. He explained the thought behind these requirements.

“The reason for doing a stream project at all, we need to control nutrients, phosphorus and nitrogen and sediments from getting into the bay,” Simmons said.

According to Maines, Taylor Run had been on the city’s radar for more than a decade due to downcutting – a geological process by which the stream channel deepens because of high volumes of water.

“The stream was impacted when the sewer went in. As you look at it over time, a stream has kind of an s curve back and forth and when you straighten it out, you increase the velocity of the waters in the stream too and it can erode,”
Maines explained.

Taylor Run (Photo/Missy Schrott)

The controversy
Bailey and Simmons agree the real issues began after the first public meeting in 2020. It
was then that the method of how surrounding areas have evaluated pollutant levels and determined the viability of stream restoration projects was revealed.

The Times previously reported that for years, instead of being based on local samples of pollutant levels, the determination for the grant money was based on the Chesapeake Bay Program expert panel’s default metrics, which are drawn from samples taken
in nutrient-rich farmland in rural Pennsylvania.

“Everybody uses it,” Simmons said. “Used it for these natural channel design projects which was from rich agricultural land near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and has no relation to these streams anywhere around here. So there is your problem,” Simmons stated.

But, recently, city officials defended their research and say the problem could not have been avoided.

“That doesn’t mean it was wrong. It means we were following the rules the federal government provided. The federal government told us to use this formula. That’s what we did,” Wilson said in an interview this week.

Community noise
When the Times looked into the true scope of the project back in October 2020, it reported that the city would need to cut down 269 trees in order to perform NCD restoration at Taylor Run, plus clear out natural vegetation and bring in heavy equipment that could
harm the root systems of trees along the construction path.

As these details were introduced to the public, impassioned citizens started to band together. Bailey, Simmons and long-time community advocate Carter Flemming questioned the project’s true impact on Taylor Run and decided to conduct their
own research.

“Rod Simmons was the first one to test the water,” Flemming said. “Found that it had nothing of what was supposed to be in it. And that spurred Russ and [the] Northridge Citizens Association to apply for a grant and test the water. Weekly.”

Simmons described his process of testing. “I paid for it myself – the analysis. And, I did it on my own, off work hours. I took the soil samples as I’ve done for hundreds and hundreds of samples over the years and sent them to an industry lab,” Simmons said.

And, it did not stop there. The project was put on pause in April 2021, after the EPC sent a letter to City Council proposing alternatives to using natural channel design at Taylor Run. Simmons said he had his own pile of correspondence, too.

“It all came screeching to a head. Because I wrote a bunch of letters,” Simmons said. “I’ve written, God knows how many letters.”

Budget concerns Simmons and Flemming alluded to having moments when they wished for more transparency. The question of just how much of the city’s budget has gone to consulting fees during the whole process continues to raise concerns.

“They had hired this consulting firm to draw up all these detailed plans and all. Now, what we don’t know is how much they spent on all of that, which was supposed to totally transform these streams,” Flemming said.

She also refuted the notion that listening to residents and altering the recommended plan for Taylor Run has cost the city money.

“The grant never was in our city coffers, so to speak. The state had designated it for us, but it was a matching grant and [Alexandria] had to match almost $3 million,” Flemming said.

The City of Alexandria eventually followed the lead of Simmons and conducted its own soil testing – indeed hiring a consulting firm to do the work. Maines could not confirm an actual number, but estimated the price to be around $20,000.

When asked to elaborate on the city’s reasoning for hiring an outside group, Maines said it was worth it, concluding they knew they could “stand behind the results.”

Collaboration and a new plan

Despite a once strained relationship between citizens and the key players behind the restoration project, all parties seem to agree that in the past few months, an impressive collaboration has been formed.

“Both our city and the work group have deliberated over the months since last September on this. And, they’ve been really productive and I must say it’s the way that things should have worked from the beginning. It’s really good and I think we’re all very pleased with it,” Simmons stated.

And, now that the grant window has closed and the $3 million in state funding is no
longer available to help pay for the stream restoration, attention turns to the new plan on the horizon – and who will foot the bill.

“We’re going to have to figure out how we finance it. We’re going to have to go to the taxpayers and figure out how to fund this and that’s my concern,” Wilson said.

Bailey cautioned not to make assumptions just yet.

“Once that report is available, the recommended approach for Taylor Run will be seen and the costs can be assessed,” Bailey said. “I believe that because the proposed project will be on a much smaller scale than the initially proposed stream reconstruction, costs will be far less than the mayor asserts and that money may exist in the current
budget to cover them.”

Flemming agreed with Simmons, Bailey and Maines that the collaborative work of the last few months, and the resultant report, is something the city should be proud of.

“You have saved two natural areas for the city and saved the taxpayers of Virginia money on a project that was not what it was supposed to be,” Flemming stated.

Maines emphasized the community aspect of the collaboration between the city and residents.

“I live in this community. I care about the community…that’s why we’ve been working with them for more than a year and a half. This is not my project, this is a community project,” Maines said.