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Commentary: Encroachment in the Parks in Fairfax County
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Commentary: Encroachment in the Parks in Fairfax County

The parks, forests and clean drinking water in Fairfax County are under attack from something called “encroachment.”

In response, the county’s park system created the Parkland Encroachment Education Project in early 2017. This project calls on students to raise awareness about the damage that encroachment causes, and to monitor and prevent it in their communities. Volunteer organizations such as the Lake Braddock Going Green Club are getting involved with the effort as well.

“Encroachment happens when someone uses someone else’s land as if it was their own,” said Kim Schauer, the head naturalist of the Parkland Encroachment Education Project, said. “In our case, encroachment is the unauthorized and illegal use of publicly owned parkland. There are very few, if any, parks that are not affected by some kind of encroachment.”

The Fairfax County Park Authority’s (FCPA) website states that people can encroach by “building structures, mowing to extend yards past property lines, dumping yard waste and garbage, or blazing new trails outside of the trails system established by the Park Authority.”

Encroachment destroys the natural forest, which “threatens the source of our drinking water supply,” Schauer said. This is because removing trees reduces the land’s ability to absorb runoff, meaning that more pollutants from roads, yards and houses are being washed into the local streams, the same places from which Fairfax County draws its water.

Besides the harmful effects that encroachment has on the environment, it is also unfair because “encroachers are stealing land for their own use without owning or paying taxes on it, keeping other people from enjoying it and taking away the ecosystem services provided by undisturbed land,” Schauer said.

According to Schauer, “the Park Authority does not have the resources to tackle the problem.” She said they have been aware of parkland encroachments for years, but stopping them involves a “significant amount of staff time” to investigate, enforce the law and mitigate damage.

This is why the county has turned to students for assistance.

“Students have the power to make a huge difference, just by spreading the word in their communities,” Schauer said. “Most homeowners don’t even know they are doing anything harmful when they mow into the park or dump yard waste in the woods. Once they know, they stop, and everyone benefits.”

She said that main idea behind everything that the county is doing is “to inform the public of [encroachment’s] illegality, its damage to the ecosystem and our drinking water supply and help people understand that they are being unfair to their neighbors and their community.”

As part of this goal, Schauer and the Park Authority have submitted a grant proposal called “Watch The Green Grow” to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).

The grant asks for $50,000 to conduct “social marketing” in the community. This is done by encouraging people to focus on the positive things that they can do to cause change for the environment, instead of the negative things that their neighbors are doing. “The hope is that social norms will change,” Schauer said.

According to their proposal, FCPA plans to partner with nearby businesses and nonprofits to support homeowners who volunteer to be stewardship role models in their neighborhoods and to empower people to take action to improve their watershed. Schauer would also like to host a community “Green Fair” with one of the companies participating with the NWF grant such as FedEx if the “Watch The Green Grow” grant meets their requirements.

In addition to getting new business partners involved, FCPA wants to get the public school system and neighborhood Homeowners Associations (HOAs) on board with their educational mission. If the grant is approved, it will give the county the resources to go into elementary school classrooms to teach environmental stewardship as well as send representatives to HOAs to encourage anti-encroachment actions and hold gardening workshops.

Grant funding would also allow the Park Authority to create a crowdsourcing app where anyone can post the good things that they have done in their yards for the environment. Every time that someone posts, a green dot will appear on a map and users can literally “watch the green grow” as the number of green dots increases. Schauer hopes that this will create a form of positive reinforcement and sense of instant gratification for people who are trying be more eco-friendly.

This app isn’t live because, even if approved, the grant won’t go into effect until August 2018, but in the meantime, FCPA has created a website to educate the community. Their new site, called “Find Your Borders: Avoid Park Encroachment” utilizes Mobile GIS technology to allow anyone with a Fairfax County address to see a satellite image of their home overlaid with park boundaries and property lines for the entire county.

By using this tool, it is possible to see if people have encroached outside of their property lines onto park land. Schauer encourages kids to share this app with their friends, parents and neighbors to tell them about the impacts of park encroachment such as erosion, habitat destruction and increased flooding.

There are some eco-friendly organizations that are already contributing to the Park Authority’s environmental preservation efforts. For example, the Lake Braddock Going Green Club is planning to implement a school-wide project this spring that involves placing deep-rooted native plants on the school’s stormwater retention pond.

“This will decrease the future impact of erosion at our school,” club sponsor Jane Gordon said. Less runoff will be allowed to flow into local streams, meaning that fewer pollutants will be swept into the water.

Right now, however, Schauer believes that the county’s best hope of resolving environmental issues like encroachment is “to ignite the passion of students to support the cause and strengthen our ability to change public opinion.”

The author is a member of The Going Green Club.